Anything But Boring!
By Bill Moore
Speaking with a pronounced German accent, Stuttgart native Wolfgang Weiss, DaimlerChrysler's program head at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento, began his interview with EV World by explaining that his team didn't want to do something "boring" like counting laps around a track or noting the hours of continuous operation. They wanted to do something far bolder and maybe even a bit risky.
Sure the competition down in the Ford Motor Company bay at the California Fuel Cell Partnership test facilities in West Sacramento had successfully run their fuel cell Focus for 24 hours straight at their Arizona proving grounds earlier this winter. But constrained by the range limitations and logistics of supplying their vehicle with hydrogen, Ford wasn't quite ready to enter the history books.
Weiss explained that the impetuous for the idea of driving a fuel cell car across the United States came from a similar event 99 years earlier. In 1903 Horatio Nelson Jackson, MD bought a used 1-cylinder, 20 hp Winton touring car and drove it from California to New York to win a $50 bet. It took him, his mechanic and his dog some six weeks to complete the trip. (The "Vermont", as Jackon's car is named, is in the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian museum complex on the Mall in Washington, D.C.)
Given the vast improvements in infrastructure and technology since then, replicating the good Doctor's historic trip should be a cinch for a multinational company like DaimlerChrysler, but this time there would be far more on the line than $50.
According to Weiss, the trip was several months in planning. They would leave San Francisco on May 20th, starting at the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge, drive across the bridge through downtown San Francisco and then onto Interstate 80 where they would remain for much of the trip. Everything would be timed for the vehicle's arrival during the 2002 Future Car Congress in Washington, D.C. some 15 days later, with a brief side trip up to Detroit.
The team selected the NECAR 5, a modified A-Class Mercedes sedan, because it used methanol as its hydrogen feedstock. An onboard reformer would strip out the carbon atoms from the fuel, feeding pure hydrogen to the car's Ballard fuel cell engine.
All the team had to do in preparation for the trip was to arrange to have 55 gallon drums of methanol strategically staged alone the route of travel. For this they turned to Methanex, a Canadian company that produces methanol and the controversial fuel additive, MTBE.
Methanex supplies the DaimlerChrysler team at the California Fuel Cell partnership with the fuel for the NECAR 5. They would simply contact its wholesale suppliers along I-80 to make the sure they had enough methanol on hand. Most of these folks sell the liquid for mixing windshield washer fluid and other industrial uses.
Since the NECAR 5 has a range of between 400 and 450 miles, the fuel was staged in segments from 250-400 miles, depending on the terrain. Refueling was accomplished in only a few minutes, Weiss noted. The team carried a small electric fuel pump with them and a "drop-less" fueling nozzle.
So, in theory, the trip was doable. A nice four-lane highway stretched east over the Sierra Nevada. Fuel would be readily available. And history beckoned. So, while not totally in secret, but certainly with little fanfare or publicity, the team gathered for the group photo above as the sun burnt away the morning fog over Marin County, California.
Unlike Dr. Jackson, whose "team" consisted of mechanic Newall Crocker, whom he'd talked into making the trip with him, and his pet dog, Bud, DaimlerChrysler's team was more a "platoon." In addition to the NECAR 5, there were two M-Class Mercedes SUVs and a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van pulling a car trailer. . . just in case.
When DaimlerChrysler set off down the pathway towards fuel cell-powered vehicles in the early 1990s, they began with some very large vans, but over time they could package more and more powerful fuel cell devices into smaller and smaller power units. NECAR 5 is the current culmination of that effort.
The entire fuel cell system including the methanol tank, reformer, stacks, controllers, and drive system are packaged either under the vehicle's "sandwich" floor structure -- which is one reason engineers selected the car -- and under the hood. Unlike earlier versions, none of the system intrudes into either the passenger or luggage space of the vehicle.
Weiss estimates that in terms of vehicle power, the NECAR 5 falls about midway between the high and low end options of available gasoline and diesel engine versions of the A-Class in Europe. The fuel cell drive produces the equivalent of 75kW of electrical energy and according to Weiss, the car can easily sustain speeds in excess of 100 mph.
A Lot of Fear
Imagine for a moment that you are about to put the reputation of a multi-billion dollar, multi-national corporation on line with what amounts to a publicity "stunt" . . . but with little publicity. You are about to set off across the vast expanses of rural America in a car valued at a couple million dollars using prototype technology.
Was Weiss concerned?
"You know there was a lot of fear along the route," he confided. I bet. "It was kind of pushing the envelope. We never [knew] at the beginning of the day if we can make the end of the day."
He explained that the typical day of the 15 day trip -- 13 spent in actual travel -- started at about 8AM and sometimes lasted as late as 10 PM at night. Every night they would lock the car inside a DaimlerChrysler or Mercedes-Benz dealership for safety -- including the new Mercedes Benz dealership here in Omaha, I would later learn.
Weiss commented that most of the dealerships were very helpful and excited about participating in the historic event. Some even made the effort to get local media to interview the team.
Disappointingly, the local Omaha dealership didn't call me when the team spent the night less than ten miles from EV World's home office, nor did DaimlerChrysler's PR people, but Max Gates explained why.
"The group was trying very hard to be low key until they got to Washington, D.C. So, we didn't publicize it too much along the way."
Disastrous First Day
Good thing, too, because the trip did not begin all that auspiciously. In fact, Weiss admits that the first day actually turned out to be the worst of the entire trip.
The first hint of trouble came when the entire caravan was stopped on the Oakland Bay Bridge by a police officer who took a dim view of the video crew hanging out the windows of the chase cars filming the NECAR 5 with the skyline of San Francisco as a backdrop. But even more serious difficulties lay ahead later that day.
Climbing the notorious Donner Pass over the Sierra Nevada's east of Sacramento, the caravan encountered heavy rain, then snow and even hail at one point. Remember this car is worth about $2 million. One of the electrical connectors in the fuel cell system short-circuited when rainwater got in, stalling the car at 6,000 feet.
"This water forced a shut down of the system, so we decided to bring the car back to a dealer in Grass Valley (California) and we solved the problem overnight."
Weiss added that at this point, they weren't sure what went wrong and assumed it was a "major problem" with the fuel cell system. "But we figured out it was just water. We dried this connector [overnight]. We plugged it in the [next] day and we drove up to the mountains again."
But not before buying a set of tire chains for the NECAR 5. The late Spring snowstorm had blanketed Donner Pass overnight.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK . . .
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