There’s a piece in the Sunday NY Times automotive section (we get it a day early) about a New York congressman, Eric Massa, who drove a Chevy Equinox fuel-cell vehicle from Corning, New York (his hometown) to DC as a demonstration of personal greenness, forward thinking and the potential of hydrogen-fueled vehicles. How is that possible; it’s 280 miles form Corning to DC and there are no hydrogen stations en route? Turns out greenmeister Massa actually drove two Equinoxes. One he drove from Corning to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he changed horses to the fully fueled second Equinox. How is that possible, since you’d think a fuel-cell Equinox would use a certain amount of hydrogen just getting to Harrisburg? Well, it turns out GM towed the Harrisburg Equinox– and also the Corning Equinox, which had to arrive there fully fueled– with a pair of hybrid Tahoes. So Massa actually used four cars and a fair amount of fuel, and produced a goodly amount of CO2, to get to Washington while “burning no fuel and producing zero emissions.”
The bailout-beggar line just got a little longer, as Green Car Congress reports that the US Fuel Cell Council is requesting a cool $1.17b of your hard-earned tax dollars (kudos for making the smallest handout request in months!). The money would come in the form of full funding for a number of programs authorized in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, including deployment programs; development of a refueling infrastructure; learning demonstrations; building domestic manufacturing capability; accelerating public-private research; and investing in fuel cell transit programs. And they aren’t leaving it there, either. A July 2008 study by the National Research Council estimated that a total public-private investment of about $200 billion would be required from 2008 to 2023 to support a transition from gasoline to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, at which point fuel cell vehicles would become competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles. Or, as we find so many causes for repeating, not. Though hydrogen fuel cells offer more long-term promise than say, ethanol, we’re still talking about some serious pie in the sky. At an appropriately astronomical cost too. Sorry kids, but if we’re to spend government money on something like this, I’d like to see it go towards lithium-ion battery development, which shows more medium-term promise and doesn’t require a new ground-up infrastructure.
Auto Motor und Sport hears that Mazda will debut a gas/hydrogen powertrain on its 2012 rotary-sportster, the RX-9. This got the German lads so excited they comissioned Mark Stehrenberg to sketch up this rendering of a potential next-gen RX. Keep in mind that all Stehrenberg had to go on was the Taiki showcar and news that the wankel engine would power the rear wheels only. As for the dual-fuel hydrogen system (think BMW Hydrogen 7), Mazda is already testing the powertrain on RX-8 mules. Although Mazda will probably improve on the BMW system’s many shortcomings by 2012, it will be interesting to see what Lithium-Ion batteries will be capable of by then. Or if there will even be hydrogen refueling stations outside of LA. Elsewhere in 2012, I’ll be stalking the used CRZ market for my slice of eco-friendly fun.
I mean, milestone. I mean, it would be petty and vindictive of me to suggest that Chevrolet’s Project Driveway program was/is an enormous waste of GM’s precious development money. If we are to have a hydrogen economy– and why wouldn’t we (other than the cost of rebuilding a trillion dollar-plus infrastructure from the ground up)– we’re going to need fuel cell vehicles to, uh, get around. So you can’t help but applaud the fact GM now has more than 100 hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinox on the road, which have logged a combined total of 500k miles. “The vehicles are performing very well and we are learning a great deal about fuel cell robustness and how to make this program work for real customers,” Marybeth Stanek, GM’s director of fuel cell commercialization, opines [via press release]. “The amount of data we’ve collected over the past year is very valuable to us, and gives us insight into this important automotive technology.” Yes, yes. What exactly have we learned? *crickets chirping* Hey! Jay Leno has one! Been driving it since April. Or, you know, parking it in one of his aircraft hangers.
Guess who will be at the 2008 Los Angeles auto show, November 21-30? A Volkswagen Passat. But it won’t be just any Passat. It will be a Passat produced by Shanghai VW. As if this is not shocking enough: The thing will be powered by a hydrogen fuel-cell. Shanghai Security News humbly reports that this might be the “first China-made new-energy car model of the Volkswagen brand to be displayed at an auto show.” It for sure is the first Made-in-China VeeDub ever to enter a US show. And it runs on hydrogen. How about that. The powertrain was jointly developed between SVW’s SAIC, Tongji University and Shanghai Shen-Li High Tech Co., Ltd. The car, veedubbed “Lingyu,” will reach a top speed of 150 km/h and should be good for more than 300 km at one hydrogen charging, albeit “with further innovation and maximization,” say the Security News via Gasgoo. SVW had built 500 fuel-cell hybrid sedans already for the green Olympic fleet, and wants to mass-produce the hydrogen fuel-cell Lingyu by early 2010. But will it sell?
China’s official news agency Xinhua reports that General Motors has kicked-off their “2009 promotional tour” of China for their Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel cell car. Starting in China’s capital Beijing, GM will send the Equinox across the world’s fourth largest country to drum-up interest for the mid-size crossover SUV that uses the same alt propl as the elusive Chevrolet Sequel. China is no stranger to the technology. Researchers at the Anting Automotive College of Shanghai’s Tongji University developed China’s first working fuel cell car– based on a venerable Santana 2000– in 2003. GM claims that they will introduce several Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen-fuel cell cars to China in the next two years. (NB: that’s “cars” not “models.”) Nobody knows what this alleged car or cars will cost, or where GM may place the necessary hydrogen refuelling stations within the vast reaches of the middle kingdom. (No small point that; the Chevy Equinox needs a fill-up every 200 miles. Or less.) For the foreseeable future, in China at least, GM’s zero emission car of the future will continue to be what comes out of its exhaust pipe: vapor.
I've been hearing about these systems that use hydrogen added to the intake systems of cars resulting in mileage gains of 20-30 percent. My engineering background tells me that this can't be the case (as you can't get "something for nothing"), but the latest spin that I've seen on the Web is that small amounts of added hydrogen somehow enhance the combustion of regular gasoline, so that a small "hydrogen generator" unit is sufficient. There's even a guy at our company (still hearsay) that claims to have increased the mileage of his Civic by 10MPG. I think this is very unlikely (if not impossible), but maybe your crew could debunk the myth, or find that there's some merit there.
So how about it? Do any of you have any experience with hydrogen injection or can explain how it could improve mileage? For that fact, have any of you ever used any gadget advertised to increase gas mileage that actually worked as claimed?
If business and government both agree that hydrogen is the future, they must be right, right? Well, the "Hydrogen Road Tour 08" has just completed the first hydrogen-powered, cross-country road trip despite the fact that there are only 60 hydrogen stations in he country. So how did the public-private publicity tour manage this feat? Well, they didn't actually. "There were stretches without hydrogen fueling stations when the vehicles were carried on flatbed trucks," reports Reuters. The longest was a 937 mile jaunt from Rolla, Missouri to Albuquerque, New Mexico. But wait, cries DOT Administrator For Research and Innovative Technology (really) Paul Brubaker, all those hydrocarbons were not combusted in vain! One of the goals of the tour was to actually demonstrate the need to build more fueling stations. So, y'know… failure is success. Not to be out-Orwelled, the Department of Energy put out its own fawning "Suggested Talking Points For The Hydrogen Road Tour" (PDF) . There you can learn that the DOE has purchased a fuel-cell Chevy Equinox, and that it is refueled at a Shell station. Furthermore, "data collected from this effort will be integrated with data from the National Hydrogen Learning Demonstration to validate real-world performance." Which is important, because you'll want to know how often you'll have to be towed in a flatbed truck between fueling stations. Unless the hydrogen-producing firms behind the tour get their fat government checks to build an expensive new infrastructure. And all this despite the fact that in a best-case scenario, automakers will only sell about 2 million electric vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells by 2020 according to the National Research Council.
The IBM Institute for Business Value polled some 125 automotive executives and "thought leaders." Their final report [via Green Car Congress] concludes that "sustainability concerns" will rule the industry's future. In fact, by 2020, they figure all new cars will incorporate some form of hybridization. Respondents were less bullish on hydrogen, daunted by "the added challenge of building an entirely new infrastructure." The study also predicts the rise of the two-car consumer, diving "a primary vehicle that best meets their daily needs… [with] the option to change to a different model, as needed." Telematics (e.g. remote vehicle prognostics and active safety), data downloads and streaming media; and powertrain innovations are all in the cards. The report tells industry types to embrace new mobility models, improve the retail experience, simplify complexity, build international partnerships and execute globally. Wow, huh. Meanwhile, I'm heading over to Tomorrowland to see yesterday's future today.
Nissan has decided that using Toyota powertrains in its Altima hybrid is a bit embarrassing. So they're working on one of their own. If CNet is to be believed, "Nissan's system is designed for a rear-wheel-drive car, and uses two clutches, doing away with a torque converter for more efficient power use." That's right sports fans, he said rear-wheel-drive. But before the hybrid Z-car rumors get out of control, consider that "Nissan hasn't released any details on performance yet, or when it might offer a car with this technology." Mes anwhile, they're charging ahead with Li-ion EVs, apparently. PC World reports that "Nissan has committed to launch its first all-electric car in the U.S. and Japan in 2010 and to mass market the vehicle globally by 2012." The latest prototype is a version of Nissan's Cube. PC World got to take the 80kw beast out on the track. The verdict? "On the test track it easily got up to a speed of 100 kilometers per hour." Breathtaking. But wait there's more! Nissan also has a new fuel cell stack that is smaller and lighter than previous models. And it uses half the platinum of previous fuel cells (a development that'll likely alienate literally hundreds of DUB readers from the green movement). While it's nice of Nissan to remind us that technology marches on, it's no substitute for a here-and-now hybrid system. Y'know, like the one they buy from Toyota.
Well, you can't accuse either side of the political spectrum of hanging around while gas prices have opened-up the debate on America's energy policy, or lack thereof. While President Bush has removed the executive order against off-shore drilling (over to you congress), former Vice President Al Gore has asked Americans to help foot the bill for a ten-year, three trillion dollar "moon shot" effort to switch to "clean" electricity from solar, wind and geothermal power. While this is an extremely inconvenient solution for coal mining states that leaves pro-nuclear partisans in the cold, I mention Al's plan here because it's implicit that the transition would enable a nation of plug-in hybrids or pure EVs. Hey, what about hydrogen? Big Al made no mention of water vaporware. But The Boston Herald reports that a group of scientists have priced-out a U.S. switch to hydrogen-powered vehicles at $200b. No mention was made of the energy source for the fuel, but apparently the the Committee on Assessment of Resource Needs for Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies have bigger fish to fry (deep freeze?). "The cost of platinum is approximately 57 percent of the fuel-cell stack costs and represents the greatest challenge to further cost reductions," the study said. "Future platinum supply is a critical issue in forward projections of fuel-cell costs." If it's not one thing, it's another.
With the traditional SUV well and truly toasted, automakers are going back to the drawing board to tempt consumers back into their AWD profitmobiles. Sales numbers indicate that two-mode hybrid SUVs do not return sufficient mileage to justify their high prices. Resurrecting the segment will require even more sophisticated technology. At least that's what Nissan reckons. The automaker's displaying its vision for THE SUV OF THE FUTURE! Yes, it's a fuel-cell-powered version of its X-Trail Ute. The Evening Standard reports that Nissan unveiled its alt power concept at London's Imperial College. The FCV X-Trail represents the pinnacle of Nissan's 12-year fuel cell development program. The fuel cell is 40 percent smaller than afore, motorvating the FCV X-Trail up to 300 miles on a tank of hydrogen. The hydrogen-battery electric drive is good for up to 93 mph in EV-like silence.Of course, the research model cost millions of dollars to develop and assemble. According to Nissan spokesfolks, "the cost of the system is still too high for mass production." Nissan engineers promise to sort all that shit out [paraphrasing] by 2015. Unless of course battery development outstrips hydrogen-based technology. Which it probably will.
The Detroit News reports Los Angeles has a new hydrogen fuel pump. A commercial hydrogen pump, rather than a fenced-off hydrogen-only fueling station. LA City Councilman Bill Rosendahl showed up in a GM-furnished Equinox Fuel Cell and announced it was "the most joyous moment I've had since being elected to office." Of course, even though it's a commercial fuel station, drivers of the approximate 100 fuel-cell vehicles won't have to pay for the hydrogen they pump. They're all part of "demonstration programs by the motor companies." So what happens when the owners start having to put their debit card in the pump to pay for their fuel like the rest of us? Good question. So far no one's saying how much it costs to produce or dispense the stuff. And apparantly no one cares. The California Air Resources Board is spending $7.7m of the taxpayers' money to open three more fueling stations so they can give away more free fuel to people driving cars they don't have to pay to operate so the anti-ICE crowd can get more
propaganda free publicity.
Whenever we talk about alternative powertrains in development, some people (this writer included) inevitably say: gasoline and to a lesser extent diesel are past, present, and medium-term future. But a number of sources claim Mercedes Benz is thinking otherwise; they're dumping the need for petroleum-based fuels in their future products in favor of electric, fuel cell, and (yuck) biofuels. Apparently Benz has spent billions of Euros on a "sustainable mobility" plan. According to the UK's Sun, Mercedes plans to spend another $14b or so in the next seven years to further develop the petroleum-free lineup. Will Mercedes give up sales in all the parts of the world in which there is no infrastructure for electric or fuel cell cars? The hedging response: their cars would still be capable of running on gasoline or diesel– meaning that biofuel flex fuel cars would satisfy this wild claim from the British tabloid. Even still, huh?
Forty or fifty years ago, every manufacturer built concept cars with alternative– and sometimes pretty outlandish– power plants (small nuclear reactor, anyone?). The gas turbine was a popular choice. GM, Ford and Chrysler were all deeply involved in gas turbine research, stretching back to the late '40s and early '50s. In 1963, Chrysler built a fleet of 50 distinctively-styled turbine-powered cars and gave them to consumers to generate real-world feedback. Turbine engines were the wave of the future– a technologically-advanced powerplant that could run on anything combustible that would flow through a pipe, from kerosene to perfume. Chrysler's test program racked-up over 1.1m miles. They continued turbine engine research until the mid 70s, when they actually planned to put a turbine into production. Then, suddenly, nothing. Chrysler's financial problems led to government loan guarantees that included stipulations that they abandon plans to produce turbines (too risky). GM and Ford had long-since been distracted by other shiny objects like rotary engines and winning LeMans. So turbine engine research halted. With all the emphasis now on alternative fuels, perhaps it's time to revive an engine that can run on hydrogen, biofuels, petroleum distillates or even coal dust. Combined with modern engine-control technology, it could be worth a second look. Or not.