Jewish World Review June 4, 2002 / 23 Sivan, 5762

Automakers: Fuel cell cars by 2010

By Scott R. Burnell | (UPI) Consumers will see attractive, affordable vehicles powered by fuel cells generating electricity from hydrogen without harmful emissions by the end of the decade, representatives from major automakers said Monday.

Speaking at the Future Car Congress 2002, senior executives from General Motors, Ford, Toyota and BMW laid out some of the challenges facing fuel-cell car development. Now is the time to solve those challenges, since it would take about 20 years to replace a worldwide generation of cars, said Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research and development planning.

"With the right focus, we can have affordable, profitable (fuel-cell) automobiles available by the year 2010," Burns told the conference. "From 2010 to 2020, I can envision a world where we (replace) the internal combustion engine at a significant rate."

Consumer interest is one key to enabling a fuel-cell switchover, Burns said, and the primarily electrical nature of fuel-cell vehicles will help spark such interest. By eliminating the space constraints imposed by today's engine, transmission and control systems, GM's future chassis designs will resemble a skateboard more than anything else, he said.

Such simplicity could support interchangeable passenger compartments, Burns explained, which could enable long-lived chassis people would "mortgage," he said, altering the body over time from a sporty coupe to a minivan, for example. Such approaches could also make the fuel-cell business model more attractive, he said.

Storing hydrogen fuel is the immediate challenge, Burns said, and though the industry has reduced the cost of doing so tenfold in the past three years, an additional tenfold drop is needed.

BMW has a great deal of experience in storing hydrogen, since the company has used it as a combustion fuel for 20 years, said Detlef Frank, a retired senior vice president for Science and Traffic Policy at the company. The chemical industry also has a long track record with hydrogen, he said.

"We think the potential is large enough that it is worth it to work on hydrogen as an alternative fuel," Frank said. "It has the potential for at least large-scale replacement of conventional fuels."

If countries decided to separate hydrogen from water using renewable energy, along with extracting it from natural gas, the resulting consumer cost would be comparable to today's European gasoline prices, Frank said. Much more work is needed, however, in educating tomorrow's drivers about hydrogen's advantages, he said.

Engineering has not solved all of its challenges, however, said Norihiko Nakamura, executive technical advisor at Toyota Motor Corporation. For example, freezing temperatures can block a fuel cell's exhaust, which is almost all water vapor, he said.

Current systems can also require enough warm-up time to allow a leisurely cup of coffee, Nakamura said, joking that the automaker is considering a coffeemaker as an accessory in its advanced fuel-cell vehicle. Even with these factors, Toyota expects to make enough fuel-cell cars to equip corporate fleets by 2005, with widespread consumer introduction by 2010, he said.

Ford is taking part in a California project to roll out appreciable numbers of fuel-cell cars and fueling stations by the end of next year, said Gerhard Schmidt, the company's vice president of research. The initial production fleet should be fuel-cell/battery hybrids based on the Focus platform, he said.

The Department of Energy will pay attention to the conference's engineer- and scientist-heavy audience, said Undersecretary of Energy Robert Card.

"We use these events to determine our research and set our priorities," Card told the conference. "Our people will be listening to what's important to you in deciding what we're going to do in our funding."

Lawmakers also are aware of the fuel cell's promise, said Jared Brown, legislative assistant to Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Both the Senate and House versions of the current energy bill contain provisions for creating tax incentives for purchasing fuel-cell vehicles of all types, he told the conference.

The event, sponsored by DOE and the U.S. Council for Automotive Research, looked at several aspects of improving ground transportation methods while reducing emissions and otherwise protecting the environment.

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© 2002, United Press International