For those of you interested in technology—and that probably includes everyone who is reading this because otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this (unless, of course, you are my mom)—there is probably no better time to be in this industry. An argument could be made that things were similarly interesting some 100 years ago, when auto was taking form. One of the things occurring in those early days was a sorting out of what would become the dominant fuel for propulsion, as electricity, gasoline, and even steam were vying for market share.* The fundamental energy density of gas, obviously, won that contest.
But today things are changing once again, with vehicle manufacturers, for a variety of reasons, providing the market with alternatives to straight-up gasoline engines, and it is worth noting that gasoline engines are undergoing vast improvements and modifications, as well.
As John O’Dell, Edmunds.com green car analyst, said in the context of the L.A. Auto Show last November, where there were 18 battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, “Edmunds.com expects market penetration of these vehicles to nearly triple in the next decade, to about 1.5% by 2020. It might not sound like much, but it adds up to about 250,000 cars a year and it would actually come at a faster pace than the adoption of conventional hybrids in their first decade in the market.”
Things are happening rather quickly.
One of the really exciting aspects is that hydrogen is becoming a market reality.
Back in the first decade of this century, General Motors was doing significant research on fuel cells for vehicles, activities that stalled somewhat as the company began to pour significant resources in what became the Chevy Volt and the Cadillac ELR, vehicles that GM calls “extended-range electric vehicles.” They have a plug and they have a gas inlet. GM does have a fleet of hydrogen-powered Equinoxes rolling around, but clearly its focus has shifted toward the Volt and ELR, as well as the electric Chevy Spark.
Honda has been a stalwart in the hydrogen space (and it announced a collaborative agreement with GM on fuel cell development with a focus on a system in 2020) for a number of years. In 2007, I had the opportunity to drive the FCX Clarity, a hydrogen-powered vehicle that was probably the most it-seems-like-the-future-but-it-is-a-real-car vehicle I’ve had the opportunity to pilot.
At the L.A. show, Tetsuo Iwamura, president and CEO of American Honda, introduced the concept version of the FCX Clarity successor, the FCEV, which Honda says it will be bringing to market in 2015. “It will have a driving range of more than 300 miles, and the ability to refuel in about three minutes,” Iwamura said. And they’ve done significant work in shrinking the size of the fuel cell stack: I remember in the early 2000s driving a hydrogen-powered Chevy S10 pickup at the then-existing GM research center in Honeoye Falls, NY, that required the bed of the pickup for the fuel cell stack. The FCEV’s will be packaged under the hood.
John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said just a few days before the LA show, “We’re still in the ICE age.” As in Internal Combustion Engine. “There is no question that it will reign supreme for some time. But,” he added, “there is also no question that we must come up with carbon-free alternatives.” And one of the alternatives that Hyundai is introducing is the Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle. This is being offered as a three-year lease, $2,999 down and $499 a month. ALL maintenance and fuel are part of the package.
Krafcik admitted that the car will have limited potential for the simple reason that at present, there aren’t a whole lot of places to get hydrogen fuel. But he also pointed out that in both Southern California and the Bay Area there are existing stations and that the California legislature has passed a funding measure to install 100 hydrogen stations over the next few years.
Toyota has also announced that it plans to have a hydrogen vehicle in the market by 2015.
Krafcik said, “This is more than marketing. This is real.”
While that was occurring, there were lots of pronouncements related to the three Telsa Model S fires that had occurred within a six-week period. It was as though people were piling on the electric car because it is coming from an outlier company and because it is, well, different. Paul Mutolo, fuel cell chemist, director of external partnerships for the Energy Materials Center at Cornell University, and a member of the board of directors NY’s battery consortium, NY-BEST, pointed out, “Statistically, it’s much safer to drive an electric car than a gasoline powered car,” then added, “It’s human nature to have some fear of the unknown. But the data here shows how unwarranted these fears are.”
Presumably, we’re soon going to start hearing about the Hindenburg disaster, too.
But those of us who are interested in technology and in advancing safe, affordable, environmentally-responsible transportation—whether this means advanced ICEs,
battery electric cars, or fuel-cell electric vehicles, or, more likely, all of the above—should support new ways of doing things.
*Search “Defunct motor vehicle manufacturers of the United States” on Wikipedia. It is astonishing.