Anything But Boring: Part 2
By Bill Moore
When Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson, his dog Bud and mechanic Newall Crocker set out from San Francisco to New York in 1903 they faced countless obstacles and setbacks, but being stopped by the police on the Oakland Bay Bridge, wasn't one of them.
It was for Wolfgang Weiss and his four vehicle caravan consisting of DaimlerChrysler's million dollar NECAR 5 methanol fuel cell EV, two M-Class SUVs, one serving as a mobile communications office, and a Sprinter van hauling a car trailer, just in case the NECAR broke down.
A Brief Brush with the Law
The DaimlerChrysler team had just finished taking a number of photos in San Francisco and where crossing the San Francisco Bay when they were stopped by a police officer.
"Our video team was hanging out the window," Weiss confessed, " and the police officer didn't like it so much."
But camera crews hanging out car windows wasn't the only violation of the law the NECAR 5 transcontinental team flirted with. They also had a difficult time staying within Interstate highway speed limits.
Being a prototype vehicle, I had assumed that keeping the car up to the 70 mph (112 kph) for extended periods of time might prove a challenge, but the opposite was true. In the tradition of cars designed for Germany's speed limitless autobahns, the NECAR 5 is capable of much higher sustained speeds, up to 95-100 mph (152-160 kph) on the test track, Weiss explained. "We tried to keep the speed limit," he chuckled.
While fuel cells that run on liquids like methanol offer the advantage of increased driving range over compressed hydrogen, they have also meant compromises in terms of their emissions and their start-up times. While we didn't discuss the former issue, we did talk briefly about the start-up time of the NECAR 5, which it turns out isn't an issue at all.
The team refueled the car every morning before setting out. But instead of having to wait for the car's reformer to heat up and begin producing hydrogen gas from methanol, a process that has, up until now, taken minutes, the crew just got in a drove away.
According to Weiss, the reformer on the NECAR 5 works almost instantaneously. Much like a conventional gasoline vehicle, you simply get in the car, turn the key and drive away. Well, as Weiss admitted, you "almost" can drive away with the turn of the key. This is because the NECAR 5 uses a hybrid-electric fuel cell architecture in which the onboard battery pack helps speed up reformer. With this version of the NECAR series, there is very little time delay between system start-up and drive away.
In the course of the 3,252 mile trip from California to Washington, DC, the team encountered one additional mechanical failure, but one any motorist might experience on such a long journey. One of the cooling system hoses for the radiator ruptured and had to be replaced.
Also, as a precautionary measure, the team replaced two worn belts on the system just before getting to Washington.
After a brief two-day stopover in Detroit for a special ceremony with Michigan's governor, the caravan proceeded on to the nation's Capitol, where everyone at DaimlerChrysler, especially Weiss breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"The stress was gone at this point," he remarked. "And, on the other hand, we also were really exhausted. You know to drive such an expensive vehicle across the country." Weiss said that while they drove the car in shifts, it was still wearing physically and emotionally on everyone. "For each of us it was a really stressful time. We were exhausted at the end."
Is Methanol the Right Fuel?
Weiss' experience with methanol, including its handling ease and relative availability, suggested to him that, "it is easier at this stage of the art to refuel with a liquid fuel like methanol. It would not be that easy with compressed hydrogen. . . "
While the NECAR 5 did get, at one point in its trip, 40 mpg (5.86 liters/100km), this was its best performance, which is better than the fuel economy of the standard A-Class, according to Weiss. However, the NECAR 5 team did a lot of experimenting along the way, especially crossing the Sierra Nevada range. This cost the car fuel economy. He noted that at one point the car climbed to nearly 9,000 feet, which required adjustments to the system software so the compress would run faster, forcing a higher volume of air through the stack to compensate for the oxygen-thin atmosphere.
Weiss added that their goal is to actually improve the car's diesel-equivalent fuel economy to more than 40 mpg.
The team also learned that they still have a lot of work to do on the car. "This is also what we learned along the route, " he observed. "To make it more comfortable for our customers."
By comfortable I assume he meant confidence. If a team of professional engineers with the latest communication's technology at their disposal were stressed out driving this car such a long distance, you can imagine how a young female college student or her parents would feel making a similar trip.
Public Sales Before 2010 Possible
Still, their exploit shows how far the technology as come and how far it has yet to do. Weiss concluded our interview this way.
"You know we had a lot of experiences along the way. We had some fear. We had some funny parts. For use it was just a great opportunity. The next step is to work more on the system, to develop the system for high volume production and by the end of 2003 actually we want to start with a kind of fleet application with [a compressed hydrogen] fuel cell system. And maybe later on. . . in five to six years, we try to sell these cars to the public."
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