Auto Service World
Feature   May 1, 2008   by Tom Venetis, Editor

The battle for the next fuel-efficient car

It seemed inevitable that with gas prices increasing rapidly, consumers are turning their attention to more fuel-efficient, economical vehicles. This shift will likely result in service shops seeing a...

It seemed inevitable that with gas prices increasing rapidly, consumers are turning their attention to more fuel-efficient, economical vehicles. This shift will likely result in service shops seeing a variety of new car technologies not only competing for consumer dollars, but for the attention of shop technicians who will have to get trained on diagnosing and repairing them.

According to the Kelley Blue Book Marketing Research, more people are shifting their car purchase decision based on rising gas prices. In KBB’s recent survey of vehicle owners in the United States, 60 per cent say high gas prices have changed their minds about what kind of car they are likely to buy, with 43 per cent putting fuel efficiency as the key factor in vehicle choice. That same sentiment is probably in the minds of Canadians who, according to analyst firm M. J. Ervin & Associates, could see gasoline prices reach $1.40 per litre this summer.

Several new technologies are right now competing for those consumer dollars. The one receiving the most attention is the hybrid, with the Toyota Prius hybrid as the signature car of that brand of technology. With gas prices showing no signs of falling, some analysts predict there will be greater pressure on Detroit to put research and marketing dollars behind their own hybrid vehicles in order to stay competitive. Right now, the hybrid field is dominated by a battle between the major Japanese car makers Honda and Toyota. Honda actually beat Toyota to the hybrid market with its Insight in 1999, but withdrew it in 2006. Honda has plans for a new, economical hybrid with the same fuel efficiency as the Prius sometime in 2009. General Motors is betting its Chevrolet Volt will take the luster away from traditional hybrids. This near electric-car (yes, it still has a gasoline engine) is a marvel of technology, especially on the battery side. Its T-shaped, liquid-cooled battery pack gives the Volt the ability to go some 40 km before it has to switch to its gasoline engine. There already is a lot of world-wide media buzz about the Volt, with the British Telegraph newspaper, for example, devoting major feature pages and online prominence to the car.

The problem with hybrids and the Volt is they are still relatively new technologies with many developmental hurdles to be worked out, particularly on the battery side. Technicians who have worked on them have to overcome some unique safety and repair challenges as well. Finally, hybrids still only make up three per cent of total car sales, so the standard gasoline-powered car is going to dominate the road for some time.

Others have predicted that high oil and gasoline prices will instead cause a renaissance of diesel-based cars. Diesel has several advantages. Today’s technology is vastly improved, cleaner and more fuel-efficient than older diesel technology, and the learning curve for technicians in knowing how to diagnose and repair problems is certainly much less onerous than on hybrids and all-electrics; and there is little chance of being accidently electrocuted by a diesel. Where diesel will have difficulties is not on the technology side, but on some peculiar aspects of the North American market. The biggest will be getting diesel vehicles into consumer’s hands. Unlike Europe where car dealers sell diesel along side gas-power cars, few dealers here carry diesel in their showrooms. Diesel, once the cheaper fuel for many years, is now more expensive than gasoline per equivalent litre. Finally, few gasoline vendors carry diesel. For example, in the area of Toronto where I live, there are six gas bars within a five kilometer radius of my home. Only one, a small independent, carries diesel. The next station that sells diesel is quite a distance away; and then the only other one I know about is on the other side of the city, again at another small independent. If car buyers don’t see diesel as readily available as gasoline, they will be very reluctant to buy a diesel fearing being stuck on the side of the road if they forgot to fill up one day.

So the verdict is still out on which technology will prevail. The deciding factors will be where gas prices go and where car makers put their development and marketing dollars. Service providers will have to be at the ready when the verdict finally comes.

Print this page


Have your say:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *