A View of Our Automotive Future

Almost two years ago, in the wake of hurricane Katrina and the subsequent rise in gas and oil prices, I made the GasBuddy.com peer-based gasoline filling station price site Link of the Month. Then I took the opportunity to write Gratuitous Rant About the Auto Industry, which focused on the government’s toothless CAFE standards and the auto industry’s lack of initiative in aggressively exploring alternative-fuel-based systems.

What followed the opinion piece was an intriguing bevy of email from Scot’s Newsletter readers both agreeing and disagreeing with my viewpoint. Many of the messages I received were from people who work as engineers and scientists in the power and automobile industries.

One of the more common refrains was that hydrogen/oxygen-based fuel-cell-powered automobiles just aren’t a realistic alternative. I disagreed, and still disagree — but I recognize that hydrogen has several hurdles to leap. We’re certainly a long way from being able to just switch to hydrogen-based fuel-cell vehicles.

One of the advantages of hydrogen is that it’s the most abundantly available chemical element in the universe. Stars and gaseous planets contain high quantities of hydrogen, but very little gaseous hydrogen remains naturally in our atmosphere. Of course, water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, creating the most abundant molecule on the Earth’s surface. So, to become a readily available fuel source, hydrogen would have to be produced through some sort of thermo, electrical, or chemical process requiring a power source. The most probable process would be to break down water to unleash its hydrogen.

According to an article in the October 2007 issue of Consumer Reports, hydrogen is currently produced primarily by burning natural gas to heat water, although using electricity for the same purpose is another possibility. Neither method is ideal, since both deplete nonrenewable resources today. In many parts of the U.S., electricity is made by burning coal or petroleum. We’re a long, long way from being able to use electricity derived from solar or wind power to generate hydrogen. On the other hand, we’ve got a much better chance of figuring out how to do this more efficiently in, say, 30 years than anything else on the horizon.

The need for another power source to generate hydrogen is its most important shortcoming. If we conquer the first problem, the next-biggest issue is significant but by no means insurmountable. According to Consumer Reports, there are only 44 hydrogen filling stations in the U.S. In order to make any switch to hydrogen a reality, we would have to overhaul our automobile support infrastructure, something that isn’t going to happen overnight.

But consumer demand could accelerate the process. What if oil were $150 a barrel in today’s dollars? What if gasoline were $10 a gallon? If our technology improves enough that we can produce hydrogen in sufficient quantities, using significantly less nonrenewable resources, with cleaner processes, and at a clear cost savings to the consumer (meaning that the cost of fuel-cell autos weren’t too much higher than gas-powered ones and hydrogen’s cost per mile were less than that of gasoline), the transformation of the infrastructure would occur rapidly, perhaps in as short as a decade.

None of those suppositions is impossible, either. We have the technology now to make fuel-cell vehicles go. Current hydrogen fuel-cell test vehicles deliver power at an acceptable rate, according to Consumer Reports. Higher pressure hydrogen tanks are under development that will increase driving range and reduce the size of the tanks. They use batteries, like hybrid vehicles, and although battery advancement moves slowly, the demand for batteries is skyrocketing worldwide. A smaller, lighter battery technology could be an important breakthrough for hydrogen-based cars. Finally, fuel-cells are an efficient source of power, and they’re liable to become more efficient, smaller, lighter, safer, and much less expensive as several manufacturers compete to produce them.

Fuel cells also convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity without harming the environment. The primary byproducts of the fuel-cell process are heat and water, so it’s very clean. Several automakers have hydrogen-based fuel-cell prototypes, including Chevrolet, Ford, Honda, Hyundai, Mercedes, Nissan, and Toyota. Consumer Reports points out that General Motors and Honda will soon be placing more than 125 fuel-cell cars into the hands of U.S. consumers to use on a trial basis in California, New York, and Washington D.C.

I have not been behind every initiative of the Bush administration, but this one makes sense to me. Our government has pumped major money into developing both the technology and infrastructure to support fuel-cell automobiles. Right now, it’s our best alternative. While I don’t expect it to arrive in earnest much before two decades from now, fuel-cell vehicles are probably our best hope for reducing our dependence on petroleum.

In the meantime, hybrid electric/gas-powered vehicles are the next best alternative. If you can afford to buy one when making your next car purchase, I urge you to do so.

Dovetailing with Today’s Hybrids
With all this in mind, my wife, Cyndy, and I recently bought a 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. The well-designed midsize SUV combines a 3.3-liter V6 gas engine with two electric motors (it’s all-wheel drive), a continuously variable transmission, and a nickel-metal-hydride battery. Although our new Highlander has less than 1,000 miles on it, Cyndy has already managed to drive it up to 34 miles per gallon on her way to and from work. The EPA rating is 31 mpg around town and 27 mpg on the highway. Cyndy’s route to work is all back roads, where hybrid vehicles excel on gas mileage, but 34 mpg is pretty good.

It’s not just about fuel savings either. The Highlander Hybrid is classified as a SULEV (super ultra low emission vehicle), meaning that it produces far less harmful emissions. Given our clear problem with global warming, whatever any of us can do to clean up our acts is important.

For those of you who doubt that the climate change we’re experiencing is man made, I think you’ve most likely been taken in by the powerful lobbies of vested interests, which include some corporations that like things the way they are. Global warming is real. It’s dangerous. And it’s time we did something about it.

Back to my little part of the world. Downsizing as my wife and I did from a large gas-guzzling SUV to the Toyota Highlander Hybrid is only painful in the money department. In other words, Toyota’s design makes excellent use of the available space, but at a price. So when we learned the redesigned 2008 Highlander Hybrid (due out in a month or two) would be significantly more expensive, I pressed forward very rapidly to grab the 2007 vehicle we bought — it was the only 2007 Highlander Hybrid my dealer could find in my area that met our requirements.

The Highlander is among the more expensive hybrids on the market, but Honda and Toyota both offer less expensive hybrids (the Civic Hybrid and Prius) that sell for around $23K to $26K. Honda is discontinuing its Accord Hybrid for 2008, but the recently designed Toyota Camry Hybrid is a superbly designed vehicle with a spacious interior that sells for $31K fully equipped. Whenever I can afford it, I hope to buy a second, smaller hybrid vehicle.

From a driving perspective, the Highlander Hybrid is a delight. It’s got plenty of power (this model splits the electric advantage between fuel savings and performance). The Highlander starts in silence and takes off on battery power unless you floor it. The gas engine takes over at about 12 miles per hour on level ground. Going up a hill or under heavy acceleration, motive power combines the gas engine and electric motor, although usually for only brief periods of time. When you coast or brake, the battery is charged by the turning wheels.

I’ve driven the Toyota Prius, Camry Hybrid, and Highlander Hybrid. They all work roughly the same way. If you want to drive them as if they’re conventional gas-powered vehicles, you can. The only pronounced difference is the sounds they make. This is especially true of the Highlander Hybrid. The power is always there if you want it. The Camry and Prius are optimized for gas savings over power. Neither is a barn burner, although the Camry has plenty of power.

Many people who own hybrid vehicles — especially the Toyota models — have found that driving for fuel efficiency becomes something of a pleasant game. Toyota offers graphical indicators that tell you how your hybrid’s engine is working at any given moment (coasting-charging, operating on battery, operating on gas engine, and so on). It also gives you a real-time readout of your gas mileage. There’s something about having all this information at your fingertips that makes you want to drive your vehicle to save gas. It becomes very obvious to you right away that the way you drive plays an important role in how efficiently your car gets you from point A to point B.

The 2008 Toyota Highlander Hybrid has a new set of features, including several operational modes that vary the way it drives, including an acceleration-smoothing economy mode. You can even set it to disable the gas engine entirely, although the batteries will only last a short time, according to Toyota’s press release. I have yet to try it, but it seems to be on the way to something I’ve wished for on hybrid models — a simple driver-selectable, three-position switch that offers Economy, Mixed Driving (the default), and Performance modes.

To wrap this all up: If hydrogen-based fuel-cell vehicles are, in fact, the future of automobiles, then the gas/electric hybrid vehicle of today represent a baby step toward that goal. The sooner automakers and motorists become more familiar with the use of stored electricity and electric motors to provide motive power for cars, the easier the transition will be to future technologies, such as fuel cells.

Because petroleum is a limited resource, we have a necessity that requires invention. The only sure way to get there is to start by accepting the need and working toward a solution. No one knows exactly when the oil will run out. The problem is, it may take a lot longer than we have to fully free ourselves from the need for this form of power. We have to reduce our usage of this nonrenewable resource as soon as we can — to give ourselves more time to figure it out. Right now, with newly industrializing countries around the globe beginning to emerge, we’re going in the opposite direction. It’s time for a change.

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One Response to “A View of Our Automotive Future”

  1. shotsky Says:

    Existing nuclear power plants can be retrofitted to produce hydrogen. They already use water for cooling, which heats the water. It ‘might’ be possible to extract hydrogen from water with low levels of radiation to help reduce nuclear waste mass.

    Lastly, smaller, safer (truly fail-safe) reactors could be built near abundant water sources to produce hydrogen directly. Salt water could be used to create hydrogen, producing a waste product which should be usable in further processes. And utililizing hydrogen for energy produces – uh, water.

    If we were just now discovering oil, and thought about the difficulty of digging it out of the ground, then piping or hauling the crude oil around the world to refineries, then piping and hauling gasoline and diesel around the whole world, we might think it unworkable – dangerous, expensive, ecologically damaging, and fodder for wars.

    John

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