Future Car Congress Report



ARLINGTON, VA — At the Department of Energy’s Future Car Congress this week there was overwhelming agreement between the big car manufacturers and government on most key issues. Namely, it will be at least until 2010 before fuel cell powered cars start showing up in any quantities, and no one has any idea what the primary fuel will be, or how it will be stored (compressed gas or liquid). DaimlerChrysler alone is developing fuel cells around 4 different fuels.

The roadmap that was laid out for the hydrogen future showed lots of highways leading to the same destination, but there were no directions to find the on-ramps. The sessions talked about the limitations of each fuel type (natural gas, ethanol, methanol, pure hydrogen), and none of the speakers was willing to give a hint as to what might be the dominant technology.

Everyone agreed that the goal is to move from internal combustion engines, which are 14 percent “well-to-wheel” energy efficient, to fuel cells, which are at 26 percent today and should continually be improved.

Cost is cited as the major obstacle. Although the cost of developing a fuel cell vehicle is one-tenth of what it was only a few years ago, there’s another 90 percent cost reduction to go. Larry Burns, VP in charge of fuel cells at GM, said it was easier to put a man on a moon within 10 years than it will be to start replacing internal combustion engines. That doesn’t exactly sound encouraging for an industry that directly and indirectly employs about one-seventh of all Americans.

Most industry and government people agreed that the existing fueling stations would add pumps to distribute the new fuels rather than adding new pumping stations.

If the “hydrogen economy” ever arrives, it could further consolidate the energy industry since fuel cells would likely also be used in homes and for portable generating stations. While it sounds efficient to theoretically power your car and laptop from the same energy source as your home, consider the power that single-source providers would have over consumers compared to selecting from an array of utilities (electric, gas, oil).

Hydrogen skeptics question its environmental benefit — citing the electricity requirement to break the hydrogen molecules apart as just a way of centralizing the processing at power plants instead of in cars. Several speakers were hopeful that renewables wind, solar, and biomass could provide a portion of the juice, as well as domestically available sources such as coal, natural gas and nuclear.

Even though such a shift would require extensive cooperation from the petrochemical and energy industries, they were barely represented at the FCC, and did not participate in any of the keynote addresses.

Chipping Away

More and more mechanical auto parts will be replaced by electronics as hybrids and fuel cell vehicles are developed. About 50 percent of a car’s cost will soon be the chips and wiring, which should boost the semiconductor and software industries.

GM’s Burns said that by the end of the year the company will have a drive-by-wire prototype car, in which nearly all of the moving parts (except for protons and electrons in a fuel cell) will be replaced by electronics to control the steering and braking.

So the “grease monkey” tasks will increasingly be replaced by diagnostics computers that indicate which boards need to be replaced. Service technicians will have to be retrained with more emphasis on computer programming, and instead of paying for the labor of removing your transmission, you’ll be paying to plug your car in at the shop for the latest performance-tweaking download.

Burns said that systems like On Star can remotely send diagnostics reports to the service centers, so they’ll know what’s wrong with your car even before AAA arrives.

Do As We Say, Not As We Do

According to Mark Wiseman of engineering firm Ricardo, the number of cars on the road will increase 40 percent by 2020, with 70 percent of the growth coming in Korea, Viet Nam, Holland and Latin America. The carmaker’s goal is to have 25 percent of adults driving their own cars, up from 17 percent, according to GM’s Burns. Since air pollution is already a big concern in these areas, the car companies say they want to offer cleaner alternatives so as to not make things worse. Of course it is very easy now for us in the states who love the open road to expect other nations to act more responsibly towards the environment.

Energy Bill Update

According to J.J. Brown, a legislative aid to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, the CLEAR ACT would give $2 billion in tax incentives over a 10 year period for people who buy alternatively fueled vehicles. Tax credits would be given for buying both the cars and the fuel. Brown touted that this government spending only kicks in after the cars are on the road, as opposed to more research funding.

Farmers in the upper Midwest are keeping their fingers crossed that the energy bill passes. It includes significant dollars for the government to buy ethanol, which would be a boon to corn growers. The current production of Ethanol in the U.S. is 1.8 billion gallons, with a capacity of about 2.3 billion, and there are 14 processing plants under construction. The problem is that while the majority of the fuel is created in Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, the consumers are thousands of miles away along the coasts.

According to Bob Dixon of the DOE, ethanol can’t be transported over the same pipelines as petroleum because it can leak MTBE into groundwater, which is a bad thing.

Brown said that although the bill might be able to squeeze through without the ANWAR drilling provision that Republicans want, he said it was only 51 percent likely that it would go through during this legislative session.

Silver Lining?

A war in the middle east that severely disrupts the flow of oil to the U.S. would probably be the best thing that could happen to the alternative fuel vehicle industry. The automakers said that if the price of gas in the U.S. were to increase threefold, (putting it on par with Europe and Asia), American’s would feel the pinch and start really considering the cost of fuel when buying a car.

Even though cars such as the Toyota Prius can save nearly 50 percent on gas, auto industry experts say drivers in the U.S. don’t really think about gas expenditures since its only about 2 SUV payments ($1000) per year . Sure, we Americans will drive out of our way to Sam’s Club to save a dollar on a gross of toilet paper, but let’s not consider the environmental or political impact of burning petroleum with abandon.

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