My Fuel Cell Joy Ride
Last week I attended a fuel cell technical seminar and training session in Palm Springs California. Workshops on the technical, economic and infrastructure aspects of implementing fuel cell technology in the near and long term were extensive and quite revealing. I was told that attendance by presenters, vendors and the general public was nearly three times greater than a similar seminar just one year ago.
As someone who has designed, built and driven three EV's in the last twelve years my opportunity to drive the latest fuel cell powered vehicles delivered to the seminar by CaFCP or California Fuel Cell Partnership was a true highlight of this four-day seminar.
Although I was unable to take the cars out on a freeway or even in stop and go Palm Springs traffic I think I learned allot.
Three vehicle manufactures were represented in what is known as a "ride and drive"
Daimler Chrysler had their Necar 5, Ford had a P2000 and Toyota brought the latest version of the Kluger or Highlander as it is known here in the USA.
When the cars were first lined up for demonstration on a blocked off street beside the convention center long lines of potential drivers began to form up. The first thing I found odd and not making a hit with eager drivers was Fords initial decision to only let people ride and not drive. The technician/driver informed me that this was established Ford policy.
This immediately brought out the skeptics who felt that perhaps the Ford product was far from being an alpha design and certainly not of pre production status. I kept hearing " are they hiding something? Also many who were familiar with the latest Ford failure in pure EV's asked why their car displayed the now defunct THINK logo on the side.
It seemed Daimler Chrysler and Toyota were eager to let people behind the wheel so in short order the established Ford policy was dropped and many in the Ford line were soon driving.
As I waited my turn to drive the vehicles I decided to observe how each performed and then ask many who had already driven what initial impressions they had.
The first obvious thing was how long the Toyota line was in comparison to the other two. At first I thought this was just coincidence but it appeared to be the case until the final drive was completed. Most who drove these vehicles came away with positive impressions and feeling good about being "one of the first" but there were some negative comments casually overheard and in answer to my specific questions
Most comments from those standing in line were in regard to the noise or better yet lack of noise coming from the Toyota relative to the other two vehicles and especially the Necar.
Since a fuel cell must use air for the oxidation reaction a small electric powered scroll compressor is often used and in the case of the Necar the noise was nearly as loud as most standard internal combustion engines. I also found it curious that many in line asked the same questions I have been asking for years such as "where will the hydrogen come from" and "are we really that much further ahead if the hydrogen is simply coming from reformed fossil fuels". In fact I found it even more curious that even non-technical folks felt gaseous hydrogen was the answer since their dream appeared to be in supplying their own fuel. I will admit this opinion was not widespread and in no way was this a scientific survey but it is something I feel manufactures should be considering in addition to the technical merits of various fuel choices.
The Necar was the first car I drove.
It is not a hybrid in that it uses the full power of the fuel cell stack for acceleration and peak power. I found this to be one of the reasons for its less than smooth and seamless acceleration since it takes quite a bit of control sophistication to "throttle" a fuel cell. Also the compressor RPM and sound level increased when heavy demands were placed on the fuel cell stack. It is a small vehicle and with driver and three passengers somewhat crowded and I felt underpowered. Lack of regen braking was obvious.
The Ford P2000 is a slightly larger and heavier vehicle than the Necar yet its performance with the same number of passengers seemed slightly better. I suppose my being a curious engineer had allot to do with it but I was disappointed that instrumentation was so lacking in both the P2000 and Necar and the technicians seemed to be somewhat uninformed as to basic specs.
There was limited time to discuss technical details with the driver/technicians and I was not taking notes so there may have been some significant technical differences between these two vehicles that diminished or enhanced their performance. But one thing that was very obvious was the prototype nature of the design and installation of fuel cell stack, fuel delivery systems and instrumentation on both vehicles. I might mention that both the Ford and Chrysler vehicles used fuel cells supplied by the present industry leader Ballard.
When I got my chance to drive the Toyota Kluger (Highlander) several things became quite obvious.
Without a very close and detailed investigation it would be hard to describe this vehicle as a prototype. From the three-phase water-cooled inverter setting about where you would find a valve cover in an ICE vehicle to the graphical instrumentation on the dash it looked just like what you would find in any Toyota showroom.
There are some good reasons why this is so. The Kluger uses several components from the Prius.
The battery pack that supplies regen braking and very smooth and responsive acceleration was simply lifted out of a production Prius according to a very informative and quite helpful Toyota technician who presented the car to the public. This very small battery pack (small by pure EV standards) resides in the area usually reserved for the spare tire. I don't know whether production fuel cell vehicles will be hybrid or stand-alone but the hybrid technology included in the Toyota certainly was impressive and made for a quieter and more responsive vehicle..
The Kluger uses two tanks of pressurized (3600 psi) gaseous hydrogen mounted under the car. Beneath the inverter is a 90 kw PEM fuel cell stack . This by itself impressed me since they are the only auto manufacturer besides the much larger GM that is not purchasing fuel cells from an outside vendor. Considering the complexity of fuel cell technology this is quite an accomplishment. In addition I was impressed with the fact that they were producing 90 kw's from a stack the size of a small suitcase. When told that production Klugers could have traction-controlled four-wheel drive by the simple addition of a rear drive motor I saw one less reason for a four-wheel drive SUV nut to reject this vehicle..
When asked about fuel mileage equivalents relative to a gasoline fueled ICE of the same size and weight or the overall efficiency I was told that this large and somewhat heavy vehicle got close to 115 miles per equivalent energy unit and was close to 51% efficient overall. I found this remarkable, as most gasoline vehicles on the road today would be hard pressed at 20% efficiency. Many of my technical questions were politely answered with the all too familiar "that's proprietary" but overall I felt they were very open and rightfully proud of their vehicle.
It may appear that I am doing an unpaid commercial for Toyota but since I was asked to write about what I observed and how I felt the cars performed, I am trying to be as unbiased as possible.
Since in most cases perception is reality my perception left me with what I feel may be the reality of fuel cell technology as coming from the leading automobile manufactures.
I would say that Toyota made a great presentation, with technicians and engineers who were quite willing to answer some of my toughest questions.
As a simple observer and not an "insider" as to the state of the art in vehicle fuel cell technology I came away from this seminar feeling that they, the fuel cell and auto manufactures are closer to having a real product than it may first appear. That prediction of a decade or more of lead-time may be overly pessimistic especially if events in the middle east prompt demands from the buying public for accelerated introduction. I also came away with the impression that Japanese manufactures and especially Toyota may be winning the race for not only technical superiority but additionally that all too critical thing in marketing success called perception. If they present themselves as number one perhaps the reality is not far behind. One thing really did stand out for me in this ride and drive and at most fuel cell auto presentations. It's the conspicuous absence of anything from General Motors, at present the number one automaker in terms of total sales volume. So what is it they are hiding? Could it be they prefer AUTONOMY?
blog comments powered by Disqus