Despite the recent defeat in Congress of a measure that would have raised fuel efficiency standards, carmakers are still feeling pressure to design and produce less polluting vehicles. Some companies are betting on new technologies to make those dramatic pollution reductions, and a debate’s emerging over how best to get there. Some observers say what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of the automobile. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert filed this report:
Despite the recent defeat in Congress of a measure that would have raised fuel efficiency standards, carmakers are still feeling pressure to design and produce less polluting vehicles. Some companies are betting on new technologies to make those dramatic pollution reductions. And a debate’s emerging over how best to get there. Some observers say what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of the automobile. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Halpert filed this report:
It’s a clear battle between emerging technologies: what’s available now: hybrid engines, versus fuel cells, which aren’t due for at least ten years. Hybrids use current technology, a gasoline engine, and add an electric engine for additional boost. A hybrid car typically gets double the mileage of a non-hybrid.
Toyota and Honda have both opted for the quicker path. They’ve been offering hybrid cars now for the past few years. Toyota’s Prius is a sedan. Honda opted for a sporty, two-seater, the Insight. But whether sporty or practical, Honda’s Andy Boyd says consumers embraced the new engine.
“We had a great reaction to Insight – people really excited by the technology, very accepting of it. It’s very transparent technology, easy to use and we think it’s ready for prime time.”
Prime time for Honda means putting the hybrid engine on a more practical vehicle, which they’re doing. The Honda Civic is a company best seller. The hybrid Civic goes on sale in April. Priced around $20,000 the Civic will get 50 miles per gallon. And Boyd thinks it will result in even broader acceptance of hybrid technology.
A domestic automaker is also jumping on the hybrid bandwagon, hoping to broaden the hybrid’s appeal. Ford Motor Company will launch the hybrid Escape sport utility vehicle later next year. Ford’s Jon Harmon says that’s an even better vehicle choice than the Japanese offerings.
“Most of those vehicles have limitations because they’re such small vehicles and we think that by giving a vehicle with more functionality that customers are looking for, like the Escape HEV, that we’re really going to open up that market.”
The hybrid Escape will get 40 miles to the gallon in the city, twice the mileage of its gasoline engine counterpart.
But while hybrids make big dents in reducing pollution, they’re not considered the final answer to the environmental problem. The more promising contender is fuel cells.
“In a minute we’ll introduce a revolutionary concept, so revolutionary that we believe it’s no stretch to say it could literally reinvent the automobile.”
General Motors President and CEO Rick Wagoner unveiled his company’s first fuel cell car prototype, the Autonomy, at the North American International Auto Show earlier this year. Fuel cells run on a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. They emit only water vapor and heat, so they’re essentially pollution free. They’re also extremely fuel-efficient. But even the GM fuel cell car won’t be available for at least ten years. That’s because the technology still faces many financial and engineering hurdles.
Even so, GM spokesman Bill Nowak says that investing in fuel cell technology is smarter than putting money in less effective, near-term hybrids.
“It has a fair amount of potential to improve your efficiency but you’re adding another power plant. A hybrid combines an internal combustion engine with an electric motor so there’s some cost factors involved in that. That’s why we think the best technology by far is the pure fuel cell.”
Still, many experts and other automakers don’t expect to see fuel cells on the road very soon. David Hermantz is with Toyota’s Technical Center. He says it could take 20 or 30 years. And he’s concerned that by pushing for fuel cells; GM’s trying to postpone any near-term actions to reduce auto pollution.
“GM’s interim image appears to be that ‘leave us alone for now and we’ll get to fuel cells in the future’ and we think we need some kind of progressive path to get to the future.”
That path for Toyota is a commitment to offer 300,000 hybrid vehicles a year worldwide beginning 2005. Honda also will continue promoting hybrids. Again, Honda’s Andy Boyd.
“In the long-term, fuel cells are probably going to be the answer, but again, if we’re looking out about 30 to 40 years, do we want to wait that long to try and do something about fuel efficiency and reducing emissions? Reducing fuel consumption is the greatest thing we can do to cut emissions, so we’re trying to do that.”
Still, the federal government currently prefers the long-term option. The Energy Department recently scrapped an existing hybrid research program and instead decided to fund an effort to develop a fuel cell powered vehicle.
That concerns Mike Flynn. Flynn runs the University of Michigan’s office for the study of automotive transportation in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He says the government’s decision, which comes amidst a slump in the auto industry, will take pressure off automakers to pursue hybrids.
“They have tremendous demand on their resources right now, so why would I do other than what the government is telling me I should be doing, which is this longer term bet on fuel cells which I may be able to defer a little bit in the first few years and use my resources elsewhere.”
Flynn’s also worried about focusing only on fuel cells. He says that if another technology wins out, the domestic auto industry could be left behind.
But GM’s Bill Nowak says that’s unlikely. And he’s convinced that ultimately, the company’s bet on fuel cells will pay off.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Halpert.