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Driving Green

Automakers race to mate eco-friendly fuel alternatives with the performance options we love
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

 

A chill wind is blowing off the glaciers, driving a stinging rain down on Iceland's capital city of Reykjavik. But after three years of planning and prepping, Jon Bjorn Skulason isn't about to let the weather ruin his day. Just think of it as "a little bit of energy pouring from the sky," the director of Icelandic New Energy Ltd. tells his shivering audience. And in a sense, he's right.

It's not often that journalists and dignitaries will fly from all corners of the globe to attend the opening of a new gasoline station. Or in this instance, the addition of one new pump to the Shell station along the city's northern coastline. But this isn't your ordinary service station.

If you were to peer over the cinder-block wall behind the pump, you'd discover a maze of hoses, wires and tanks, but in the end, the chemistry is surprisingly simple: take some water, whether from rain or well, apply a jolt of current, and through a process known as electrolysis, you get one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. The latter gas is the most abundant element in the universe. It's also the fuel for an automotive revolution that may wind up in your own driveway in the not too distant future.

A century ago, when the horseless carriage was beginning to overtake four-legged forms of transportation, plenty of alternative power sources existed. At the 1900 New York Auto Show, the first of its kind, steam and electric vehicles outnumbered those running on gasoline. The discovery of cheap Texas crude closed that debate, and ever since, the vast majority of automobiles have relied on abundant and inexpensive petroleum.

Though the internal combustion engine is relatively efficient and affordable, it does have its drawbacks, as you discover during a rush-hour drive through almost any major American city. Even after a quarter century of ever more stringent emissions standards, the automobile continues to foul the air. And keeping our tanks filled is a major factor in the U.S. trade imbalance. If you believe a series of recent television ads, every time you top off the tank, you're funding a terrorist somewhere. Even when you tone down the rhetoric, there's a growing sense that the gasoline-powered car is an endangered species.

"We have been captive to petroleum," admits Alan Taub, executive director of General Motors' science labs. The challenge, he stresses, is finding an alternative that's not only technically feasible, but which will meet the expectations of demanding American motorists. The failure of California's experimental battery car project shows that won't be easy— tomorrow's green machines will have to match the range, comfort, cost and flexibility of today's cars—but neither is it impossible.

 

Gassing up

It may be frigid cold in Reykjavik, but on this early spring morning, a bright sun peers down from clear skies over Manhattan. A line has formed along Eleventh Avenue. The city's annual auto show is under way inside the Jacob Javits Convention Center. But in the service drive outside, Honda is offering demonstration drives in its FCX fuel cell vehicle.

Fundamentally, a fuel cell is a simple device. Feed hydrogen into one side of the "stack," plain air into the other, and the two gases combine to produce water—and electric current. In the FCX, that's the power used to turn the prototype Honda's electric motor. Pulling out into traffic, the hatchback "accelerates up to 30 [mph] faster than a Civic and about as well as a Civic above 30," explains Stephen Ellis, American Honda's manager of alternative fuel vehicles and marketing.

The fuel cell was first conceived in 1839 by British scientist Sir William Grove. But it took more than a century to put the concept to practical use, initially in the U.S. manned space program. Launching an Apollo spacecraft with enough heavy batteries to see it to the moon and back was impractical. NASA found an alternative in Grove's technology. At the time, the primitive fuel-cell technology required a NASA-sized budget, and even then the devices were still balky and cumbersome.

In recent years, researchers have been making plenty of progress. The latest fuel cell stacks are compact, powerful and increasingly reliable. What once cost millions has come down several orders of magnitude. But the price of hydrogen fuel cells remains anywhere from 10 to 50 times more expensive than a comparable gasoline engine. And that's only part of the problem, cautions GM's Taub.

Unless you've got a friend at the Kennedy Space Center, you'd probably have a hard time finding a ready supply of hydrogen. Replacing the existing refinery, distribution and service station infrastructure is likely to be a trillion-dollar project, according to those in the know. And that's a relatively easy dilemma to solve. "One of the biggest problems," says Taub, "is onboard storage." American motorists expect to be able to drive several hundred miles between fill-ups. To get there with hydrogen, you need to store the gas at crushing pressures or chill it to only a few degrees above absolute zero, where it becomes a reasonably dense liquid.

Add it all up, and most observers expect the transition to fuel cell technology to be a slow one. Scores of hydrogen-powered cars, trucks and buses are now operating in demonstration fleets in places like Los Angeles, Vancouver, Amsterdam and Reykjavik, but the first commercially available FCVs likely won't reach your neighborhood showroom until 2010—at the earliest. Even if all the obstacles are eventually overcome, a complete transition could take decades more.

 

Return of the diesel?

So what do we do until then? "Existing technology usually makes its biggest gains when threatened by a new paradigm," suggests Dr. David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That certainly applies to the internal combustion engine. Since the mid-1970s, automakers have eliminated about 98 percent of its harmful emissions, and even tougher standards will be phased in by decade's end. What comes out of the tailpipe of Ford's new PZEV (in auto-speak, that's short for Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) version of the Focus subcompact is actually cleaner than the ambient air of Los Angeles.

Traditionally, environmentalists have focused their attention on three toxic gases: carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons and smog-causing nitrogen oxides, or NOx. As global warming has become more of a concern, carbon dioxide has been added to the list. There's a direct and immutable relationship between fuel economy and CO2 levels: the more fuel you burn, the more carbon dioxide you produce. That and the high cost of fuel have generated a renewed interest in the diesel, especially in Europe.

These high-compression engines were extremely popular in the wake of the twin oil shocks of the 1970s, but those models had plenty of problems. GM was forced to buy back thousands of diesel Oldsmobiles after their engines began failing catastrophically due to design defects.

Today's diesel is a far cry from the noisy, smelly, shaky engine of the past. Take the V-10 TDI (or turbocharged, direct-injection) diesel that Volkswagen will soon offer in its new Touareg sport-utility
vehicle. It will launch off the line faster than the V-8 Touareg, but deliver better mileage than V-6 engines. And its stump-pulling 553 foot-pounds of torque will tow just about anything smaller than the QEII. AMG, the high-performance arm of Mercedes-Benz, recently introduced its first diesel model, the C230 TDI, and in track testing, it matches the lap times of AMG's gasoline-powered C-Class sedan.

Now add the fact that the latest diesels deliver as much as 35 percent more mileage than comparable gasoline engines.

Diesels are quickly becoming the power train of choice for Europeans—for several reasons. For one thing, motorists are paying as much as $5 a gallon for gasoline, and concerns are growing about CO2. So Europeans can cut their fuel costs and feel good about their contribution to the environment It also helps that the latest European diesels are just so darn drivable. In some markets, diesels now account for as much as 70 percent of new car sales. That figure has been rising steadily for several years, and not just in econo-cars. Some of the diesel's fastest growth is in the luxury segment. Hoping to reverse a sales slump, Jaguar recently announced plans for its first diesel.

In the United States, Volkswagen can't keep up with diesel demand, and a number of other manufacturers are adding the engine to their offerings. But not as quickly as you might expect. That, critics contend, is because regulators are working against their own goals. New rules could effectively bar sales of the diesel engine because it produces slightly higher levels of NOx than gasoline engines. Diesels also generate small amounts of sooty particulates, which some studies link to respiratory failure. Manufacturers are struggling to meet the tough new standards, and it will help immensely when the oil industry starts pumping out low-sulfur diesel fuel later this decade. But by then, the diesel could disappear from U.S. shores.

 

Two engines in one

That'll be fine with those who see the hybrid electric vehicle, or HEV, as the near-term road to environmental redemption. Honda's teardrop-shaped two-seater, the Insight, was the first to reach the United States. The car's secret is an electric motor/generator mated to a downsized gasoline engine. Energy normally lost during braking or coasting is recaptured and stored in a small battery until the driver demands a burst of acceleration. Then the system delivers like an electric supercharger. Insight delivers as much as 68 mpg in highway driving, 61 in city, though its unusual shape limits versatility—and demand.

Honda's new Civic HEV and Toyota's second-generation Prius hybrid aim to take gasoline/electric technology mainstream. Prius offers the added advantage of operating as a pure electric vehicle at slow speeds, such as when you're crawling along in traffic. Toyota's taking a different approach with its Lexus RX 330 HEV, an updated version of its popular SUV/crossover. Rather than focus on fuel economy, the automaker's upscale division is putting the emphasis on performance, using its electric assist system to boost the standard car's acceleration.

While hybrids have become the cause célËbre for U.S. environmentalists, not everyone is buying into the new technology. Sales have lagged sorely behind expectations so far, after an initial burst of interest. Critics contend that the technology operates better on paper than in practice, something reflected in the latest J.D. Power Initial Quality Study. Many Prius owners complained that they got significantly lower mileage than expected.

Even if future hybrids do deliver on expectations, their added cost—$3,000 or more over vehicles with conventional power trains—is hard to justify in terms of fuel savings when gasoline is cheap. So federal lawmakers are being pressed to approve tax credits that would offset the hybrid price penalty.

Though the Big Three have been slow to adopt the technology, they're beginning to ramp up HEV production. Ford will roll out a gasoline/electric version of its popular Escape SUV next year, about the same time General Motors releases an HEV version of its full-size pickups.

"We're taking a very pragmatic approach, targeting a wide array of popular models with varying degrees of complexity to give consumers a variety of choice," says Rick Wagoner, GM's president and chief executive officer. Within the next five years, GM will be able to produce up to a million hybrids a year in three different flavors. These will range from a so-called "mild" hybrid package on its Malibu sedan—like Insight, little more than an electric power assist—to the Advanced Hybrid system planned for the Saturn VUE. Like Prius, GM's SUV will be able to operate in purely electric mode during around-town driving.

Hybrid technology leans heavily on computer control technologies and many of the other systems that will eventually be needed by fuel cell vehicles, so there could be a logical transition. But there's another "bridge technology," one that shows that the internal combustion engine's time is far from over.

 

Great taste—less polluting


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