Ford Focus fuel cell car on track
Lawrence Technology University in Southfield, Michigan was the site of the EnV 2001 Sustainable Mobility conference. If offered a great test drive venue and top notch presentations. Too bad so few decided to attend.

In Search of Sustainable Mobility

EV World's editor reports from the Detroit

By Bill Moore

There are few events in the world that usually attracts the caliber of individuals representing the best and brightest in advanced technology vehicle design and development than ESD's Environmental Vehicle conference held biannually in Detroit, Michigan.

The last two conferences, held in 1998 and 1999 saw nearly overflow crowds of attendees from all the major automakers, fuel cell developers, battery companies, relevant government agencies and even the major oil companies.

At the very least, you could expect to rub shoulders with the heads of research at all the major automakers, not to mention presidents of leading EV and hybrid component companies and senior government officials.

A Shadow of Its Former Self

Sadly, despite the best efforts of the Engineering Society of Detroit, EnV 2001 was but a pale shadow of its former self. Not that the presentations weren't top notch. They were excellent. Not that the vehicles available for the Ride & Drive weren't state-of-the-art; they were. And not that the facilities weren't adequate; Lawrence Technical University in suburban Southfield proved a very acceptable venue, especially given the modest number of exhibitors and attendees.

But the trend EV World first noticed at EPRI's Smart Solutions 2001 conference in San Diego last week seems to be repeating itself at similar conferences around the US. Many exhibitors appear to have slashed their exposition and conference budgets this year, as have many of the companies that would normally have sent representatives to conferences, either to present or simply to listen and learn.

While the reasons for this are probably myriad, the consensus of several EnV 2001 attendees is that the current state of the US economy has much to do with the dramatic decline in attendance to these type events. It's a shame, especially in the case of EnV 2001, because those who stayed home missed the opportunity to interact one-on-one with industry and government leaders, as well as drive Ford's fuel cell Focus, the Dodge Durango HEV and the GM Allison diesel hybrid-electric bus, among many others.

One other possible explanation for low attendance is the plethoria of overlapping alternative energy and transportation conferences and events now starting to crowd our collective calendars. While EnV 2001 was convening in Southfield, the US Department of Energy's FutureTruck competition was taking place at GM's Michigan proving grounds, making it impossible for EV World and others to cover or attend that event, which concluded in Washington, D.C.

The fact that more and more conferences are starting to address the issues of sustainable transportation and energy once reserved for just a handful of events like EnV 2001 would seem to bode well for the gradual mainstreaming of technology that was once thought of as too "futuristic." It seems "Tomorrow" is now here.

GM Sends a Message

Despite the disappointing turn out, EnV 2001: Global Solutions for Sustainable Mobility continued the tradition to top-notch presentations and keynote speeches. This year's conference had the strong support of General Motors who fielded the Precept PNGV car, their Chevrolet 1500 series hybrid-electric pickup, a Chevy Cavalier powered by natural gas, the Allison diesel-electric bus, and the incomparable EV1. As if to emphasize its role as leading sponsor, the first four speakers, excluding Larry Slimack of ESD, where senior GM executives including Dr. Larry Burns, Dennis Minano, Bob Purcell and Lewis Dale.

Interestingly, however, while GM executives spoke glowingly of the future, both Ford and DaimlerChrysler actually demonstrated the hardware of that future by having on hand the Th!nk Technologies-powered fuel cell Ford Focus and the Dodge Durango hybrid-electric SUV, both available to poke, prod and drive. For some reason known only to GM management, neither the Chevy 1500 hybrid-electric pickup nor the Precept did anything more than sit under the shade of a large tent in the parking lot. This led one wag to teasingly speculate that maybe neither of their vehicles actually run.

By contrast, the big Allison diesel hybrid-electric bus from Indianapolis did work - most of the time -- and anyone who wanted to take it for a spin around Lawrence Tech's ample parking lot was free to do so, with some supervision, of course.

The Allison-powered bus is a clear reflection of GM's argument against ZEV mandates in California, which centers on the question of priorities. GM contends that more emission reductions can be achieved by introducing technology like the Allison diesel-electric drive, which comes in both series and parallel configurations, than can be achieved by building fleets of small battery electric cars. Certainly, it is obvious that this standard 40-foot transit bus is significantly cleaner and quieter than its standard diesel cousins. According to Allison, it is also nearly twice as fuel efficient, getting 5 to 5.5 mpg compared to 3 to 3.5 mpg for the normal diesel bus, while delivering far better acceleration, the company says.

Allison has two of these buses in regular scheduled service in Orange County, California and according to Charles Kootz, the bus driver and technician, transit bus drivers there are rewarded with a month behind the wheel of these remarkable vehicles. However, the buses do cost more up front, though Allison projects cost parity over the lifetime of the vehicle when compared to a diesel bus. If you compare it to a natural gas fueled bus, the company estimates transit operators could save nearly two million dollars or more per bus. This is because of the very high costs of building and operating a central CNG refueling system.

A Glimpse of the Conference

While their product is hardly revolutionary, the appearance for the first time of Gates and Visteon with their EMD system is encouraging. Both companies are first tier suppliers to the auto industry and if they are developing products to help car makers build more fuel efficient vehicles, this must surely indicate that EV technology in all its increasingly subtle shades is beginning to become mainstream.

Perhaps the most provocative and troubling presentation of the conference was that of Russell Moy with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Russell is working on a law degree and decides to look at the legal issues surrounding the implementation of a hydrogen infrastructure. He found plenty of case precedence to suggest that not only will building such an infrastructure be costly and difficult, it may also be beset with thorny legal issues.

Bill Craven with DaimlerChrysler and others, however, noted that rather than discouraging the development of a hydrogen economy, Moy's presentation only helped underscore the issues that need to be addressed. Most were confident that all of the issues Moy raised can be solved and in the end, most predicted we'd see a hydrogen economy before 2050, if not sooner.

Don Sturges of frogdesign suggested that the growth of the digital economy could help address the issue of congestion, which is just as seemingly intractable an issue as building a hydrogen fueling system. He urged that more consideration be given as to ways to create "safe neighborhood harbors" where walking and bicycling were the preferred mode of travel, followed by NEVs, city EVs and mass transit, all of which are seamlessly blended into a smoothly functioning "mobility" system. Only then can we expect to reduce congestion, as well as pollution.

Dr. Frank Jamerson, seconded notion by urging that planners also include electric bicycles and scooters in their thinking. He showed an illustration of an overhead, enclosed cycling path that uses air pressure moving in both directions to help cyclists along, while keeping them out of the weather.

Kenji Morita with the Japan Automobile Research Institute explained the scope of the ACE project, which is studying a variety of innovative hybrid vehicle technologies. One of particular interest is an absorption system to store more natural gas onboard vehicles. The lower energy content of natural gas cuts the range of these vehicles nearly in half, so being able to store more fuel will give CNG vehicles better range.

Dr. Jack Gibbons, the former assistant to the President for Science and Technology, revealed a promising new technology that combines water and diesel fuel during combustion and eliminates all emissions in the process.

Meanwhile Lester Lave of Carnegie Mellon University argued that in his view even hybrid electric vehicles make little economic sense except in certain classes of heavy duty vehicles. He thinks we can find ways to reduce emissions elsewhere in the environment far cheaper and more effectively than with expensive, complex hybrid-EV technology. He's also the guy who argued that battery EVs will increase environment pollution, not reduce it. Not everyone agreed with this conclusion.

In fact, if there was one not so subtle message that came out of the conference it is that carmakers and many other knowledgeable experts would love to see American attitudes towards diesel technology change. They argue that if you look at the overall "well-to-wheel" efficiency of fuels, diesel is far superior to gasoline. You simply get more energy bang-for-the-buck using diesel. The problem has been that diesel engines historically have been dirty and lacking in performance. However, when matched to a hybrid-electric drive train and an advanced diesel engine with modern catalysts and particulate traps, these objections can be removed. Certainly the Allison bus demonstrates this. Gone is the dirty smoke and smell.

One very obvious trend from the conference is the relegation of electric vehicles to neighborhood niches or the dustbin of history. As it was 100 years ago, battery technology is still the weakest link of the system. Certainly performance has improved dramatically, as has range, but for most car industry insiders, fuel cells are the long term (and range) answer, though they freely admit there are still huge cost and technical issues to be overcome. That's why nearly every one of the panelists on the closing day said that the IC engine will still be around for the next 20-30 years or longer.

The pathway to sustainable mobility is by no means obvious. As a society we seem to be groping our way along, sensing there are powerful forces bearing down on us like population growth, energy consumption and global warming. Nearly everyone at the conference, with the possible exception of Lester Lave, thinks EV technology can play an increasingly important in helping address the energy consumption part of the puzzle.

In the end, however, what may make the most sense is for all of us to leave our cars - both gasoline, diesel, hybrid and battery EVs -- in the garage, climb on a bicycle every chance we get and peddle (or walk) our way to the future.

Conference Photo Gallery

This GM Allison diesel hybrid-electric transit bus provided shuttle service between the two hotels where attendees stayed and the campus of Lawrence Technical University in Southfield. The operation wasn't entirely trouble free. The bus kept shutting down, a problem eventually traced to a faulty set of wires. Despite these early teething problems, the bus is very quiet and amazingly clean.

The proud father of the Allison hybrid-electric bus, Dr. Ahmed El-Antably takes his place at the helm of the bus. EV World's editor got to drive the bus and found it an enjoyable experience, though having the steering wheels five feet behind you means you have to learn a whole new set of visual cues for when to turn a corner. Allsion has three of the prototype buses in development, along with two heavy-duty trucks, all using the Allison hybrid-drive.

Charles Kootz, an Allison technician, is one of several contract employees trained to demonstrate the bus. He is a qualified helicopter pilot and mechanic who also was able to troubleshoot the wiring problem with the bus while talking with engineers by telephone back in Indianapolis.

The Allison hybrid-bus team, along with EV World's editor and Cascade Engineering's "Ben" Gaegauf go out to dinner during the conference. Left to right are: Ben Gaegauf, Bill Moore, Charlie Kootz, Ed Bass and Kevin Rodgers).

The Allison hybrid-electric bus literally follows its predecessor, the GM EV1. Allison engineers give the EV1 full credit for pioneering the way towards the development of their electric drive technology. GM made one EV1 available for the Ride&Drive sessions, however, sources tell EV World that efforts are already underway to offer EV1s to museums, marking the quiet retirement of this much-loved EV.

Finally.... the much anticipated Chevrolet 1500 series hybrid-electric pickup. Disappointingly, it looks no different from its conventional siblings. GM's Bob Purcell told EV World that the company sees no need for design differentiation in its light duty truck line. The hybrid version is expected to look identical to the conventional gasoline engine version. However, Purcell did acknowledge that in the passenger car line, there is likely to be some design differentiation.

With the help of an anonymous DaimlerChrysler employee, we can see the twin 120 Volt AC power outlets mounted in the bed of the Chevrolet hybrid-electric pickup. GM and other auto makers are hoping that giving consumers ability to tap into the electric power onboard their vehicles for work, play and emergencies will offer an added marketing incentive for HEVs. But if you're looking for real serious electric power, wait until you see DaimlerChrysler's competing Dodge Ram with a 20kW onboard generator. Now that's some serious juice!

And while we're on the subject of DaimlerChrysler, one of the hits of the Ride&Drive was the hybrid-electric version of the popular Durango SUV. Employing the company's "Through-the-Road" hybrid system that mounts a 70 HP Siemens electric motor to drive the front wheels, the Durango has near sports-car acceleration. The favorite expletive of surprised drivers was "Oh sh_t!" when the usually sluggish SUV blasted off from a standing start. We've shot some digital video of this amazing vehicle. Watch for it in future issues of EV World.

DaimlerChrysler's Horst Sobel, director of technology policy and Bob Chapman, the chairman of CHAIN Energy Optimization Group, converse under a bright sunny sky during the Ride&Drive sessions that included Ford's fuel cell-powered Focus and Nissan's Hypermini and Tino hybrid-electric vehicles.

Dr. Frank Jamerson, publisher of the Electric Bike Industry Report, enjoys a spin in a new DaimlerChrysler acquistion, the GEM neighborhood electric vehicle. GEM had both a two and four passenger version available to drive. Jamerson is one of the leading experts on technology developments in the expanding world of electric bicycles.

The Jeep Commander fuel cell SUV on display inside of Lawrence Tech's student center exhibit area. DaimlerChrysler began the conference displaying the ESX3, but before EV World could get photos of it, the company replaced it with the Commander. Fortunately, the company let EV World inside its Liberty "Skunk Works" after the conference and we got plenty of shots of it and a number of other prototype vehicles, which we'll feature in upcoming issues of EV World.

Nissan's Tino gasoline hybrid-electric offers a roomy refinement of current HEV state-of-the-arts. It seats four to five and has ample storage space behind the rear seat in its five-door configuration. It is available only in Japan at the moment.

Nissan's hypermini was also popular during the Ride&Drive. Powered by lithium-ion batteries, some thirty of these vehicles are in demonstration service in the US, mostly in California. Nissan's Rick Reinhard told EV World that the company is looking at replacing the current battery with a newer lithium-ion battery utilizing different chemistry that it hopes will help bring down costs. EV World found the short-coupled vehicle a bit too jerky on the rolling test track at LTU. The vehicle is also plagued by limited range, usually about 30-35 miles between charges. It will need future refinement before it could be considered for wider commercial production.

Gates Rubber and Visteon teamed up to develop an Electro-Mechanical Drive systems that can be bolted into place on almost any conventional gasoline engine car. Here is it being demonstrated in a conventional Ford Focus. The EMD system will provide carmakers with the ability to offer the automatic stop/start feature found on both the Honda Insight and Toyota Prius. The system currently requires a 42/14 volt system though work is also underway on a 14 volt system. EV World drove the car and found its EMD system very promising. We'll do a story on it in the near future.

Gate's Tim Haven proudly shows off the Gates/Visteon EMD system mounted on a conventional gasoline engine. The system uses an innovative Micro-V rubber belt and tensioner to deliver auto start/stop and eventually even regenerative braking. Gates says the design costs and weighs less than flywheel-mounted systems currently being developed in Europe.

Lawrence Tech students have been involved in many electric and hybrid-electric vehicle projects including this FutureCar entrant. Frank de Hesselle is one of LTU's EV-technology advocates. He organized the Ride&Drive and took EV World's editor for a nearly friction-free spin in his 1989 Pontiac sedan, which he claims can now get 44 mpg. He says he accomplished this feature for a total cost of $36 by minimizing brake drag and switching to a different type of air filter. For details contact him at dehesselle@ltu.edu.

Conferences like EnV2001 offer a great opportunity to make new friends and get reacquainted with old ones. I met Patrick Debal (left) of VITO, the Flemish Institute of Technology Research at a previous EnV conference. This time around he was on hand to deliver a paper on a real-time emissions testing system developed at VITO. With him under the Ride&Drive tent is Jody from DaimlerChrysler.

If the Durango was the performance surprise of EnV 2001, the Ford Focus was the technological center of attention. There was a waiting line wanting to drive it. Eventually we got to take a couple spins in it, one driving, another shooting video. We can now report that this is a really fun car to drive with a surprising amount of pep, which is accompanied by a telltale whine from the fuel cell's air compressor. Someday, car nuts may compare not the throaty rumble of their V-8s but the jet-like whine of their fuel cell engines.

AC Propulsion's Alec Brooks takes his turn behind the Th!nk-powered Focus. We didn't have a chance to ask his impressions when he returned, but everyone we did speak with seemed impressed with what they found. According to Ford's Bruce Kopf, this model uses the more powerful Ballard MkIX fuel cell stack than the P2000 MkVII. It is powered by compressed hydrogen, supplied in part by a stand-alone Stuart hydrogen electrolyzer. According to Stuart's Leo Varlese, it would take about 8 hours to top off the car's tank using a Stuart home-scale appliance. However, a more powerful system at Ford's development facilities can refuel the car with pure hydrogen in 3-4 minutes.

A cutaway view of EcoStar's next generation electric motor/inverter system. A motor similar to this -- if I remember correctly -- is supposed to power the Th!nk city when it comes to the US. The only major change is the inverter will be modularized to make it easier to service. The entire unit is liquid-cooled, except for the reduction gear set which is hydralically-cooled.

An LTU instructor checks out another EcoStar electric motor. The company is a joint venture of Ford, DaimlerChrysler and Ballard. It currently designs electric vehicle drive systems which are built to spec by outside vendors, according to Ronald Spranger, the company's sales manager. EcoStar is also looking to apply its electrical control expertise to distributed generation.

An overview of the exhibit area includes the Nissan's Pathfinder fuel cell demonstrator. The vehicle is used to show the placement of various fuel cell components from the carbon-fiber wound hydrogen storage tank in the rear to the Ballard fuel cell stack, humidifier, and drive motor in the middle of the vehicle to the electronic controls under the hood. Hanging from the ceiling is a restored student-built airplane from the late 1940's.

Times Article Viewed: 5380
Published: 16-Jun-2001


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