LYON STATION, Pa. — How I wound up in Greensburg, some four hours and 254 miles west of here, is a story for another time. For now, I’ll say that I was lured into misdirection by the sirenlike voice of the 2012 Land Rover Range Rover’s navigation system: “Proceed along the current road.”
I was proceeding west along Interstate 70, moving steadily into Pittsburgh’s metropolitan area. I should’ve been driving east on Interstate 76, toward Kutztown, in search of this tiny, well-hidden Pennsylvania Dutch hamlet that could change the future of the global automotive world, including that of the three-ton, 510-horsepower leviathan I was driving.
They develop and manufacture batteries here at East Penn Manufacturing Co. Most of East Penn’s batteries are the advanced lead-acid type, erroneously written off by much of the automotive media, including your humble columnist. We predicted that lighter-weight lithium-ion batteries would replace the heavy lead-acid type, especially in the automobile industry’s global movement toward vehicle electrification in pursuit of the equivalent of more miles per gallon.
Sally Miksiewicz, chairman and chief executive of East Penn, whose family has been turning out lead-acid batteries of one type or another for 66 years, begged to differ. She invited me to come to Lyon Station to see why.
But first, an aside: The common truth governing automobile development worldwide is that we can no longer proceed along the current road. An air-gulping, fuel-guzzling, supercharged 510-horsepower luxury sport-utility vehicle might sound sexy. But the truth is that not even the rich can really afford it. That means the 2012 Range Rover Supercharged I drove here was obsolescence on wheels.
The Range Rover Supercharged swigged the premium gasoline it requires at a rate of 16 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. I ended my complete trip of about 710 miles — from Northern Virginia misdirected to the Pittsburgh area corrected to Lyon Station and back to Northern Virginia — with a fuel tab of $178. That’s ridiculous. Even Range Rover executives concede that reality cannot continue.
As a result, this is the very last year for the Land Rover Range Rover as we have come to love, loathe, lust for and know it. The 2013 model will be cosmetically different — sleeker, meaning more aerodynamically efficient. The 2014 model, compared with what we have today, will be a technological shocker.
Versions of the 2014 Range Rover will be electrified — gas-electric hybrid, electrical-assist stop-and-go or load-changing electrical assistance with the electrical portion doing most of the work at lower speeds and lower payloads. Mumbai-based Tata Motors, a component of the Indian conglomerate that now owns Land Rover, is being tight-lipped about the specific technology or combination of technologies it will use in future Range Rover models. But Tata’s executives have made it clear that we have seen the end of fuel-guzzling Range Rovers, and that batteries will play a major role in the company’s pursuit of more miles per gallon.
But here’s the thing: Those batteries may not be lithium-ion, which are efficient but super-expensive and difficult to recycle for environmental purposes. Nor are they likely to be nickel-metal-hydride, which also have their environmental cycling problems. Enter advanced lead-acid batteries with the emphasis on the word “advanced.”
Neither Miksiewicz nor any of her executives would identify for the record what automobile manufacturers are interested in East Penn’s new UltraBattery, which is what I came to Lyon Station to see. But a surreptitious peep at the battery company’s guest list showed representatives from car companies all over Asia and Western Europe, which is all I’m allowed to say at this point.
The excitement is understandable: A reliable battery that can accept and deliver large electrical pulses, especially in the partial state of charge needed for many hybrid applications, and do so at a cost substantially lower than lithium with an environmental recycling profile substantially higher than lithium’s, is a winner.
The UltraBattery uses carbon-enhanced capacitors to hold charges as long as lithium batteries — and much longer than most lead-acid types. It could be the breakthrough battery — in terms of charge retention, environmental recyclability and cost — that many automobile manufacturers say they are looking for.
East Penn executives say they are in final testing phases for the UltraBattery. It should be ready just in time for the electrification of Land Rover’s Range Rover line in 2014.
That date can’t come soon enough. My wallet is still aching from the strain of putting premium gasoline into the 2012 Range Rover Supercharged’s 27.6-gallon tank. It took all of the fun out of the SUV’s super-smooth power delivery from its supercharged 5-liter V-8 engine (510 horsepower, 461 foot-pounds of torque).
I was of two minds being lost in the 2012 Range Rover Supercharged. Being lost in such a pleasant, super-luxurious womb where all of your needs are taken care of, with the possible exception of correct directions, is not such a bad thing. But knowing that you are paying heavily for each mistaken mile is sobering. Here’s hoping that Land Rover also install a much better navigation system in its 2014 model.