Auto Industry Struts Its Stuff

November was a month of alternative fuel car debuts. The first of 750 Ford demonstration TH!NK city vehicles arrived – they are currently for sale in Scandinavia, and will be sold in the U.S. in 2002. The electric 2-seaters are designed for urban driving, with a range of about 53 miles (85 km) and a top speed of 56 miles per hour (90 km/h). Hertz will offer the vehicles in San Francisco to BART (their subway system) shared-car subscribers and as daily rentals at Fishermen’s Wharf. Ford will use 40 vehicles in Dearborn, Michigan as part of its car pool fleet.

At the opening of the new 50,000 square-foot California Fuel Cell Partnership Headquarters in Sacramento, California, Volkswagen, GM, and Hyundai showed off their fuel cell prototypes. Volkswagen unveiled its first hydrogen fuel-cell car – Bora HyMotion (known as the Jetta in the U.S.) with a range of about 350 km (217 miles) on 3 gallons of hydrogen. It accelerates from 0 to 100 km/hour in 12.6 seconds reaching a top speed of 140 km/hour (87 mph). Hyundai’s entry was its prototype fuel cell-powered ”Santa Fe” SUV. And GM displayed the HydroGen1, a five-seat concept vehicle. It can reach a top speed of 90 miles per hour and has a range of about 250 miles per tank of hydrogen.

Many leading auto manufacturers, energy providers, fuel cell companies, and government agencies are members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Its new building will serve as a development center, maintenance depot and filling station. Says Ferdinand Panik, head of DaimlerChrysler’s fuel cell project group, “We have overcome the major technological obstacles facing the development of the fuel cell drive system. The task now is to reduce its costs and pave the way [eg., infrastructure] for rapid introduction of these automobiles by 2004.”

DaimlerChrysler bought Global Electric MotorCars (GEM), making it the first major automaker to sell Neighborhood Electric Vehicles in the U.S. GEM will produce 5,000 vehicles this year. They can a attain a maximum speed of 25 miles per hour; 32 states approve their use in settings such as military bases, resorts, universities, planned communities, industrial parks and cities.

DaimlerChrysler estimates its hybrid Dodge Durango, due out in 2003, will take about 15 percent of the model’s market. The Dodge Ram hybrid pick-up truck, to be released in 2004, will double as a generator, providing 20 kw of power for other uses.

General Motors announced it is shelving plans to build a fuel cell-powered version of its hybrid ”Precept” concept car. Instead, GM will convert existing vehicles to use fuel cells. The company intends to have a converted Chevrolet S-10 pickup running on a fuel cell by 2002, to be followed by other fuel-cell conversions by 2010.

BMW plans to open its UK Rolls Royce plant in 2003. The $100 million project incorporates many environmental features such as earth-bermed buildings, a “living green roof,” and recycled rainwater.

After factoring in cost and total ”well to wheels” emissions, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers predict that gasoline, diesel or natural gas-powered, hybrid-electric vehicles will be the most common propulsion systems available in 2020. According to the study, hydrogen will be expensive and hybrids are preferable to electric vehicles given their cost and the emissions required to produce the electricity.

The report, “Future Wheels: Interviews with 42 Global Experts on the Future of Fuel Cells For Transportation, Fuel Cell Infrastructure, and a Fuel Cell Primer,” suggests that research investments in fuel cells should focus on hydrogen-storage technology, since this will have the greatest impact in accelerating commercialization of fuel-cell vehicles. A majority of experts agree the long-term goal is to store hydrogen onboard, rather than reforming other fuels such as methanol. Some experts view hybrids as a transitional technology, while others believe they will coexist with fuel-cell vehicles. Most believe fuel-cell buses will precede the wide use of fuel-cell cars. The Northeast Advanced Vehicle Consortium prepared the report for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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