Visitors to the Orange County, California, auto show last month could do more than imagine the future: they could sign up to drive it.
Honda offered $500-a-month leases to put its hydrogen-powered FCX sedan on the road. The car was unveiled at the October 2005 Tokyo Motor Show after spending more than two decades in research and development. It will be available for purchase in 2008, a year earlier than anticipated.
Meanwhile, Chevrolet took applications from ordinary drivers in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Southern California to test its fuel-cell-powered Equinox midsize SUV. Chevy planned to build more than 100 units for the test, dubbed Project Driveway, each featuring aluminum doors and carbon-fiber hoods to offset the heavy weight of the cells.
Both vehicles represent a worldwide race to offer consumers alternatives to petroleum fuel – or, at least, an opportunity to cut back. Three driving forces power the change: for buyers, environmentalism and an escape from climbing gasoline prices, and for manufacturers, a fresh economic well to tap.
What does the future hold? Here's a peek at the engines that U.S. and foreign automakers will bring us within 10 years, with a few already parked in the driveway.
Most hybrids contain a gasoline engine and an electric motor that kicks in at low speeds or when the car stops. The two engines add to the initial cost, typically as much as $6,000 more than conventional models. But hybrids improve fuel economy by about 30 percent.
The payback can take awhile, but, in the meantime, several states and the federal government offer tax credits to hybrid buyers. In 2006, those buyers accounted for 12.2 percent of new auto registrations in Los Angeles, 8.1 percent in San Francisco, and 5.6 percent in New York, with Washington, D.C., and Boston following at 4.5 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively. Some engineers have predicted that hybrids may account for 10 percent of U.S. vehicle sales by 2015.
Chrysler offers improved fuel savings with a two-mode hybrid system in its Chrysler Aspen and Dodge Durango SUVs for 2008. The system's computer lets the car run on one or two electric motors or an electric motor-gas engine combination, or can shut down some of the gas cylinders, for 25 percent better fuel efficiency overall, or 40 percent better in city driving.
The Ford Escape Hybrid has been redesigned for 2008. Along with a facelift, the latest generation Escape Hybrid also has improved fuel efficiency. The 2008 model is rated at 34 city and 31 highway mpg compared to 31 city and 29 mpg highway for the old model. The Escape Hybrid SUV's electric motor can operate up to 25 mph without starting the gas engine and its regenerative brakes recharge the battery with every stop.
Toyota leads the race in hybrid sales, far outselling other hybrid makers. Of all 252,327 hybrid passenger vehicles sold in 2007 through September, Toyota's Prius totaled 137,114, according to figures compiled by the Electric Drive Transportation Association, an industry organization based in Washington. The rest of the top six were: Toyota Camry, 40,879; Honda Civic, 23,828; Toyota Highlander, 13,707 (through July); Lexus RX400h, 12,193; Ford Escape, 11,444 (through June), according to R.L. Polk & Co., a provider of automotive market information.
Advanced gasoline engines
Automakers continue improving conventional gasoline engines to save fuel. For 2008, Chrysler offers new computer-controlled Phoenix V-6 engines that drop to three cylinders when less power is needed, increasing fuel economy as much as 8 percent.
Chevrolet calls its system Active Fuel Management; it shuts down four of the six or eight cylinders on level roads. It's offered in the Avalanche, Impala, Monte Carlo, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, and Trailblazer.
Gone are the stinky smokers of the past; in come super-clean-burning diesels, especially when they burn low-sulfur fuel made with a combination of petroleum and animal fat or vegetable oil.
Modern efficient diesel engines cost more because of their construction, but they improve fuel economy up to 30 percent. They're very popular in Europe – the National Biodiesel Board estimates 40 percent of passenger vehicles sold in Europe run with diesel engines. Though they haven't caught on well with U.S. buyers, automakers keep trying. Among them, General Motors plans to produce diesel-powered Cadillac and Saturn models. Volkswagen will offer its Jetta TDI in all 50 states for 2008; the company says its "clean diesel" reduces nitrogen-oxide emissions by 90 percent and gets up to 40 percent better fuel economy than gasoline. Mercedes-Benz has introduced new Blue Tec diesel engines that it says not only offer cleaner emissions, but also boost horsepower and torque. And Chrysler plans to put a clean diesel in its 2009 Jeep Cherokee.
Fuel-cell research continues moving ahead – as it has done for decades. Challenges have included the high cost of precious metals inside them that are integral to the power-producing reaction between hydrogen and oxygen; reducing them to a manageable size; and creating cells that work well in cold weather.
Chevrolet plans to collect data with its Project Driveway market test, but Honda will take its FCX into showrooms for 2008. Engineers shrunk the fuel-cell stack to the size of a briefcase and put it into the transmission hump, with hydrogen tanks below and in front of the trunk. Chrysler has been testing fuel-cell engines in Australian buses and European passenger vehicles, and General Motors has developed a fuel-cell-model Sequel that goes from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds and keeps going for 300 miles. Ford's fuel-cell Explorer goes 350 miles between fill-ups. Ford intends to market its fuel-cell-powered Focus FCV initially as a fleet vehicle; 30 of the cars are undergoing road tests in the United States, Canada and Germany.
Experts don't forecast big consumer sales of fuel-cell vehicles in the near future because hydrogen filling pumps will be hard to find. In fact, the National Fuel Cell Research Center, founded by the federal Department of Energy in 1998 at the University of California, Irvine, only recently opened a hydrogen fueling station to serve Toyota Highlander fleet vehicles.
You'll be hard pressed to buy an electric car from a big automaker, though they've been available for years from small shops. Chevrolet has been showing its Volt electric concept car at shows. The idea is that it can run on electricity and just about anything else: gasoline, ethanol or biodiesel. The Volt is intended for short commutes and can carry four to five passengers.
Twenty-five years ago, the big news in passenger cars was efficient assembly, not efficient engines and cleaner alternative fuels. In 25 more years, advances in technology may make today's cars seem like old-time wind wagons. Though we may not yet fly to work, we'll surely breathe a cleaner breeze.
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