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Texaco Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sign
This sign sponsored by Texaco promotes fuel cells and hydrogen. It greets incoming passengers in the luggage claim area of Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C.

Reality Confronts Future Cars

A review of the 2002 Future Car Congress in Washington, D.C.

By Bill Moore

If I were to sum up this year's Future Car Congress, held June 3-5 in Washington, D.C., in a single if somewhat crude phrase, it would be "reality bites."

Two years after the first Future Car Congress convened under the Clinton Administration, it is now apparent that the heady expectations for fuel cells and hydrogen have waned. Replaced instead is the cold realization that getting there is going to be very expensive and technologically daunting.

By one estimate, construction of a hydrogen infrastructure in the US alone could cost between 600-800 billion dollars. Not only is the construction of such a fueling infrastructure challenging economically, but so is the effort to reduce the cost of fuel cells, which have come down dramatically in the last five years, but need a similar magnitude cost drop in the next five before even beginning to approach parity with the internal combustion engine.

Perhaps most troubling of all is the realization that the "well-to-wheel" efficiency of current fuel cells is only about one percentage point better than that of a modern diesel hybrid-electric engine;: 27% vs 26%. Conventional gasoline engines are only about 14% efficient, well-to-wheel.
Congress Photos
Click here to view photos from the 2002 Future Car Congress.

Yet, to their credit, it appears the world's carmakers still seem committed to pursuing the promise of a hydrogen-based economy, one that relies increasingly on fuel cell technology. They all agree this pathway represents the only viable, long-term option to eliminating the environmental, economic and political issues associated with our culture's over-dependence on petroleum.

It was Dr. Gerhardt Schmidt, Ford's vice president for research and development, who told the conference in his opening remarks, that his company continues to explore a portfolio of technology options primarily because Ford is concerned that some unexpected event looming just over the horizon could profoundly disrupt the present status quo. We've recently quoted Ford's John Wallace expressing a similar view.

While he didn't speculate what that event might be, off the record, others at the conference hinted at possibilities like an overthrow of the Royal House of Saud by Islamic extremists or a widening nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India or the much-debated peak in world oil and natural gas production. Any or all of these could have a profoundly troubling impact on the world's economy and the supply of oil to the West. Ford and the other carmakers understand they must have a strategic plan in place to respond to such contingencies, if they are to survive.

So, this year's Future Car Congress focused on how we get from where we are to where we and our children need to be twenty years from now, when fuel cells are expected to finally be commercially competitive. SAE and ESD granted EV World permission to audio tape all three plenary sessions and panel debates and we'll be presenting those over the coming weeks. Be sure to watch for these this summer.

As for the technology on display at the conference, most of the major manufacturers either had their latest technology on display or available for the Ride & Drive. GM's booth featured its potentially revolutionary AUTOnomy fuel cell concept mockup. Dr. Larry Burns announced that a first generation prototype of the vehicle should be on GM's test track late this year.

Ford's exhibit featured the Escape Hybrid, which will go on sale in late 2003, with full scale production in 2004. One exciting piece of news is that Ford is planning to warranty the 300-volt Sanyo NIMH battery pack for the life of the vehicle. That will remove one of the major impediments to the sale of the car. The company is also apparently looking for additional manufacturing capacity, according to a Ford representative, in case sales of the Escape Hybrid really take off.

Ford had its Focus fuel cell car at the Ride & Drive, but it wasn't available the day I was there. Instead, Ford demonstrated a Contour using an internal combustion engine running on hydrogen. [See Congress Photos for more details].

Perhaps the most eye-opening vehicle at the Ride & Drive was a European Ford Focus diesel imported from Belgium by Delphi. For Americans who think of diesels a noisy, smelly, dirty engines, which they still are here in North America, this car is a revelation!

I've read about the vast improvements that have been made in the last decade with the introduction of the common rail diesel in Europe, but this is the first opportunity I've had to experience it, and I was truly impressed. If I hadn't known any better, I'd have sworn this was a conventional gasoline engine vehicle and not a sluggish, dirty diesel. Gone is the annoying clatter and smoke.

Delphi's Steve Keelor urged me to "step-on-it" on a short section of the test drive which wound around the Turner-Fairbanks Highway Research Center, adjacent to the headquarters of the CIA. The diesel turbo charger vaulted the car forward with what can only be described as "brisk acceleration." Given the inherently better fuel efficiency of the diesel engine, I was left wondering why this car isn't available in North America.

Yes, I know there are emissions issues still be to resolved, but combining this type of engine with a hybrid-drive could put America on the road to a more fuel efficient future while we get our hydrogen infrastructure in place.

DaimlerChrysler's big news was the successful completion of the first transcontinental journey of a fuel cell vehicle. The NECAR 5, running on methanol, covered nearly 3,500 miles in 11 days from San Francisco to Washington, DC, with two days spent in Detroit. It averaged 40 mpg and traveled 300 miles between refueling stops along US Interstate 80, where the company had pre-staged 55 gallon drums of methanol.

The car was on display outside the Corcoran Galley of Art in Washington, D.C. the night of the conference gala. EV World is working with DaimlerChrysler to arrange an interview with Wolfgang Weiss, the NECAR 5 team leader. The company also had its Jeep Commander II fuel cell SUV on display in the exhibit hall.

Perhaps the crown jewels of current fuel cell technology are the Toyota FCHV4 and the Honda FCX/V4. The short driving course around the Turner-Fairbanks Center wasn't really long enough to give a good feel for the real world capabilities and short-comings of either vehicle. But it did demonstrate in a very clear fashion just how far both companies and the technology have come.

In this urban-like driving situation, both cars are virtually indistinguishable from a conventional IC engine SUV or mini-van, in terms of performance and handling. Both utilize a hybrid-electric design in combination with their fuel cell "engines" to improve acceleration and efficiency. In the V4 version, Honda uses a set of ultra-capacitors to capture regenerative braking energy while the Toyota uses batteries.

The only pure battery electric vehicle at the Ride & Drive was Toyota's RAV4 EV. Carmakers can say all they will about battery EVs not meeting drivers' expectations, but after two swings around the test track, I am more convinced than ever that BEVs like this will have a place in our transportation mix. The RAV4 EV is simply extraordinary. It offers ample seating for four. Cargo hauling capability. The "above-the-traffic" seating so loved by SUV owners and more than adequate performance for most daily urban driving needs.

Best of all it is virtually pollution free, at least at the "tailpipe," which it doesn't have or need. Sure a replacement battery pack now costs $30,0000, which accounts for the bulk of the car's $42,000 price tag in California, but if a secondary market can be developed for these batteries, say as backup power supplies for business or residential solar electric installations, then the cost should be able to be brought down substantially.

And from a national energy security standpoint, this SUV can be fueled by a variety of homegrown energy sources from conventional fossil fuels and nuclear to renewables like wind, hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar PV, making them true ZEVs. Owners of these vehicles never need stop at another filling station, a point CARB's Craig Childers wanted me to make when talking about EVs and HEVs.

Childers, who is responsible for much of CARB's ZEV rule making, explained that while he understands why a company like Honda or Toyota might wish to alleviate buyer concerns about "plugging in" a hybrid electric vehicle, which you don't have to, he also said that many EV owners in California really like the ability to be their own "filling station." They relish never having to stop at a gas station, instead recharging their cars at home, at night during low cost, off-peak power rates.

One of the more interesting comments during the conference was the growing recognition that there could be an important role to be played by the V2G concept or vehicle-to-grid. In this scenario, a battery or fuel cell EV could actually help provide peak power to the local grid, as well as one's own home, and be paid for it! That would turn the typical family's second largest capital investment, the family car, into a paying asset instead of a liability that sits idle 23 hours out of the day. I expect to hear more on this in the coming decade.

I found several technical sessions during the conference noteworthy. One by James P. Moore (no relation) revealed that based on the best estimates of two respected research organizations using modern geologic methodology, North American gas supplies will peak sometime around 2020, based on current demand curves. If we attempt to convert to natural gas as a transportation substitute for petroleum, the peak will occur even sooner. [Be sure to read Matthew R. Simon's speech delivered May 23rd at the International Workshop in Oil Depletion in Uppsala, Sweden]

The folks from Hyperdrive walked into the "lion's den" when they presented three papers on their technology, which were met by skepticism, especially from Argonne Lab's Steve Plotkin. But in all fairness, I think Alex Severinsky, Ted Louckes and Robert Templin gave about as good as they got.

Both Louckes and Templin have some 80 years of automotive engineering experience between them, both retiring from GM as heads of engineering for Oldsmobile and Cadillac, respectively. For his part, Plotkin questioned the trio's assertion that their high voltage drive system would be less expensive than current systems from Honda and Toyota. It was clearly one of the more provocative technical sessions of the conference.

The third presentation was by Leslie C. Shirvill of Shell Global Solutions on the topic of "Safety Considerations in Retailing Hydrogen." He explained the work being done by Shell to investigate the issues surrounding the retail distribution and sale of hydrogen. The bottom line is Shell thinks it can safely sell compressed hydrogen gas to retail consumers for use in their future fuel cell vehicles. The company feels it clearly understands the safety and handling issues.

Speaking of oil companies, a number where present at the conference including BP and Marathon, with CITGO being the conference's major sponsor. Interestingly, most of these companies now no longer refer to themselves at oil companies, but "energy" companies, clearly indicating a shift in their focus.

Both BP and Shell are considered the leaders in both hydrogen fuel development and renewables like wind and solar.

While I didn't see any Texaco representatives on hand, they do have a large advertising sign (see the photo above) in the baggage claim area of Reagan National Airport, touting their involvement in fuel cells and hydrogen.

This trend of oil/energy company involvement, which began back in 1999 at one of the first Environmental Vehicle Conferences in Detroit, clearly demonstrates that these companies now take this technology very seriously, and are looking to play an active role in its development. I think that's a very healthy sign and may strongly suggest that they see the age of cheap oil coming to a close much sooner than most Americans realize.

One mantra you hear repeated continually at one conference after another is that oil in America is too cheap, and this from auto company executives, to boot. Everyone seems to agree that before serious progress can be made, the price of a gallon of gasoline needs to go and stay above $2 or more. But as one panel member from Europe reminded everyone, any increased tax on gasoline or carbon needs to be applied directly to moving the nation towards its hydrogen goals and not seen as general revenue to cover non-related government expenses and programs. Good point!

You'll hear these kinds of comments and more as we make our recordings of the conference available in the coming weeks.

In summary, the 2002 Future Car Congress clearly demonstrated just how far we've come in the last five years and how far we have yet to go. The job for the energy companies, auto manufacturers and policy makers is to carefully set the best course for moving America and the world towards a more sustainable energy future. All agree its needed, how best to get there and when is the trillion dollar question.

Times Article Viewed: 4022
Published: 08-Jun-2002

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