John DeCicco
Are carmakers using the promise of fuel cells as a 'fig leaf' to cover their obstructionism to improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency? DeCicco thinks so.

Critical Eye

Part one of an interview with ACEEE Green Book author, John DeCicco

By Bill Moore

There are few in the world as knowledgeable about the environmental impact of the automobile than John DeCicco. Formerly a senior fellow with the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, where we helped start the annual Green Book guide to environmental vehicles, he is now a senior fellow with Environmental Defense in Washington, DC. He has just authored a report published by the Society of Automotive Engineers which examines the issues - - both technical and political - - that confront the widespread adaptation of the fuel cell as a replacement for the internal combustion engine.

EV World asked DeCicco to not only talk about his new report and the Green Book, but also the mood around Washington, D.C. regarding the debate over a national energy policy and its impact on the development of both hybrid and fuel cell vehicles. In part one of our interview, DeCicco discusses the origins or the Green Book and its findings.

One of the misconceptions about the Green Book is that is focuses only on environmentally-friendly passenger vehicles. It this were the case, it would be a very short book, indeed. Instead, DeCicco and ACEEE review every new model vehicle available in North America, some 1,100 models, all together, including cars and trucks. In addition, the Green Book looks not just at their fuel efficiency, but the overall impact they have on the planet, though DeCicco admits the amount of data available on the manufacturing side of the equation is limited.

"We do count manufacturing impacts as well as tailpipe pollution as well as the global warming pollution from both burning the fuel and producing the fuel. So, we include the emissions from petroleum refineries for gasoline vehicles and we include the emissions at power plants for electric vehicles."

While DeCicco and ACEEE can tell us which vehicles are the cleanest - - and the current leader is the 2002 Honda Insight with the CVT transmission scoring 57 points out of 100 possible - - they can't say who is the cleanest manufacturer. This is because there simply isn't enough data available to make an accurate assessment.

Good News, Bad News
Since ACEEE began reviewing new car models in North America and publishing its findings in the Green Book, DeCicco said there has been a steady reduction in vehicle emissions from conventional gasoline cars and trucks.

"This is a result of regulatory standards from California and the US EPA, and also [in] the last few years the voluntary actions of a few car companies who have put so-called low-emission vehicles on the road even sooner than was required by the regulations. So, we're seeing real, steady progress in that tailpipe part of the pollution."

Another important piece of good news, in DeCicco's view, is the advent of hybrid-electric vehicles from Honda and Toyota. "When we started there were no hybrid vehicles on the market," he said, adding that there will shortly be three gasoline-electric hybrids available in North America, the Toyota Prius and the Honda Insight and the new Honda Civic hybrid. "The coming of hybrid vehicles has been good news and those vehicles grace the top of our list."

Unfortunately, there is bad news, as well.

"The not-so-good news is that since we started, fuel economy, on average counting all cars and trucks, has continued to decline. That means the global warming part of the problem has actually grown worse the past five years, when all is said and done."

This is because of US consumer preference over the last decade for heavier vehicles, especially sport utility vehicles.

Top Scorers
While the cleanest car in North America is the number one-ranked Honda Insight, the second cleanest is also a Honda, but this one isn't a hybrid or battery electric car, but the Civic GX fueled by compressed natural gas. Its Green Book score is 52. Tied for second place is the Toyota RAV4 EV, a four-passenger, small SUV powered by electricity and soon to be available to consumers in California. The third cleanest is also a Toyota, the Prius gasoline-electric hybrid with a score of 51.

DeCicco explained that the RAV4 EV was measured using the US average power plant mix, more than 50% of which is coal-fired. He said that if they had used the cleaner California energy mix that makes uses of more renewables and nuclear power than the national average, the RAV4 EV would have scored even higher.

Fuel Cell Fig Leaf?
While some environmental critics see automaker fuel cell R&D as jus so much environmental window dressing, DeCicco sees it as a very legitimate effort to come up with a cleaner alternative to the century old internal combustion engine. In fact, he calls it "unprecedented."

Through the efforts of companies like Ballard, he believes the technology has moved from the realm of "exotic" research to "what I would call a top contender for a true, next generation vehicle technology."

That being said, he also has strong reservations about fuel cell technology, especially if it is used as a "fig leaf" to prevent serious improvements in auto fuel efficiency.

"The sad truth is, [automakers] are using this future work, as valuable as it is, as cover, as a fig leaf of sorts for their inaction, and worse than inaction, their obstructionism on improving fuel economy."

He explained to EV World that while he didn't want to detract from or minimize carmaker efforts to perfect the fuel cell for automotive applications, he was concerned that carmakers would use the future promise of fuel cells as an argument against spending money to make cars more efficient today.

He observed that GM, for example, has stated that the government shouldn't require it to focus on fuel efficiency because it would detract from its much more promising fuel cell work.

"I think that is very disingenuous and unfortunate," he stated.

"The real issue is that the investments the industry makes now every year to produce . . . new models is simply going into offering more of almost everything except fuel economy; and that's the problem. It's time for the industry to start directing some of that near-term product investment, essentially how they use the technologies that are already available and begin putting those into vehicles in ways that improve fuel economy."

DeCicco strongly believes that even with the future promise of fuel cells, unless there are strong incentives, including higher C.A.F.E standards, that there's a very good chance we may never see fuel cells introduced in significant numbers.

"Without the guidance from the government to improve fuel economy and the associated commitment by the industry to make ongoing fuel economy improvements, I think the likelihood of fuel cell vehicles or other advanced technology options coming into the market is actually very slim. There simply will not be a business case," DeCicco said.

He contends that what fuel cells offer has much to do with higher efficiency, and because this is such a low priority item to carmakers, it will be very difficult for fuel cell advocates inside the industry to be able to make a profit-driven business case for the technology. He thinks it could become nothing more than a "long term R&D venture."

"If the conditions aren't in place to make a business case to say use advanced engine technologies to improve vehicles by one or two miles per gallon, or to use a hybrid technology to improve efficiency by five to 10 miles per gallon," DeCicco said, "then certainly we're not going to see a business case to overcome all the obstacles associated with bringing fuel cells into production."

Down the Slippery Slope
If fuel cells are still too distant to make a difference in fuel efficiency, could hybrids help, we asked?

DeCicco responded that, at least, according to announced production plans, there simply aren't enough hybrid vehicles being put into the marketplace and on the road to arrest our slide down the slippery slope of growing foreign oil dependence brought about by America's infatuation with heavier and heavier vehicles.

"The extend of hybrid commitment that's been talked about will barely make a difference."

Trapped Between a Rock and Hard Place
Much like battery electric cars before them, fuel cell vehicles find themselves in the difficult position of needing an extensive and expensive infrastructure to support them and the lack of sufficient numbers of vehicles to warrant the investment in that infrastructure.

In DeCicco's view this manifests itself in the lack of sufficient onboard hydrogen storage to give fuel cell vehicles adequate range, compounded by slow progress in gasoline reformer technology. "Overcoming those obstacles points to the question of what would it take to get the business case?" he asks. "Again we're facing the lack of commitment on the part of the auto industry, and the industry is one of those that is holding back the US federal government from committing to do something about efficiency and CO2 emissions."

"That's where the motivation in our society is needed. I think when those larger kind of institutional commitments get made, there will be more of a incentive to work through the technical barriers in a big way because it will involve some very major investment commitments," DeCicco stated.

In addition to the barriers facing fuel cell technology is the status of competing technologies that can meet similar market and societal needs, he observed. He sees hybrid technology offering many of the same benefits of fuel cells without the infrastructure issues. You can get similar efficiencies, as well as the needed additional electric power that new vehicles are starting to demand.

"Hybrids can go a long way to meeting those other market drivers," he said. In short, he sees fuel cells as still very "uncertain propositions" right now. He thinks it will take a decade at least for electric drive technology to mature, including falling costs for electric motors, controls and related components.

Just as important as maturing electro-drive technology is the level of commitment society is willing to make to address issues like global warming.

"If we move to a situation where a real commitment is made, I think that will create a powerful incentive to really begin commercializing technologies like fuel cells."


Times Article Viewed: 4901
Published: 03-Feb-2002


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