A New Kind of Combustion in Detroit
If General Motors is right, the parts will predict the future.
At GM's Vehicle Assessment Center in Warren, Mich., three long shelves represent today, tomorrow, and, the company hopes, the next automotive century. One shelf is filled with the components of a conventional propulsion system, taken from a Chevy Malibu. Next to that sits an even bigger pile of metal--the battery- and gasoline-powered innards of a Toyota Prius hybrid. The third shelf, by comparison, looks practically empty. It holds the propulsion system of a prototype fuel-cell vehicle, powered by hydrogen--which requires 90 percent fewer moving parts than the hybrid.
Fuel cells produce energy through a chemical reaction, like a battery, rather than through combustion, so there's no need for pistons, camshafts, or dozens of other bits of machinery. Since the fuel cell can go anywhere in the vehicle--not just under the hood--cars could be recast with better safety structures and more user-friendly interiors. Fuel cells emit no pollutants, only water vapor. And since hydrogen comes from other sources in addition to fossil fuels and can even be wrung out of water, it could distance the auto industry from oil politics. "We want to take the vehicle out of the regulatory debate," declares Larry Burns, GM's research and development chief.
GM has staked out an aggressive technological timetable for hydrogen, pledging that by 2010 it will design a fuel-cell vehicle able to be mass produced. Other automakers, pursuing their own hydrogen dreams, wonder if GM engineers have been inhaling too many fumes. Even if GM were to mass-produce a fuel-cell vehicle, the futuristic car wouldn't get very far. There are fewer than two dozen hydrogen filling stations in the United States, most of them clustered around Los Angeles and San Francisco, where various government and university experiments are underway. A national infrastructure would require about 12,000 stations, at $1 million apiece. It still isn't clear whether the hydrogen would come in a gas or liquid form, or if consumers could safely fuel their own vehicles. Other daunting technical hurdles involving hydrogen storage and cold-weather limitations could push fuel cells out indefinitely. "Hydrogen is compelling from an energy security standpoint," says Bill Reinert, manager of Toyota's advanced technology group. "But we see fuel cells further out than 2020."
GM is pushing for breakthroughs sooner, partly because its executives think fuel cells could help revive the sputtering company. Since fuel cells can be scaled up or down in size and output, big automakers could replace an extended family of four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines with just a couple of different fuel cell power trains. The technology could make cars more appealing, too. The energy from a fuel cell can run even more computer chips and electrical gizmos than found in today's cars and produce even more power than a gasoline engine. GM's fuel-cell prototype, the Sequel, is just beginning to hit modest benchmarks for performance and convenience. It can travel 300 miles between refuelings, typical for a passenger car, and accelerates from 0 to 60 in less than 10 seconds--at least 50 percent faster than a Prius.
As with hybrids, however, GM could quickly end up trailing competitors on hydrogen. Toyota and Honda already have a number of fuel cell vehicles undergoing real-world tests in corporate and government fleets. Honda has reportedly made breakthroughs on a problem known as "cold start" that allows its system to turn over at temperatures as low as minus four degrees. Retired DaimlerChrysler board member Jurgen Hubbert said recently that hydrogen cars might account for 1 percent of the market by 2012, or roughly 17,000 cars--with Daimler building most of them. Wherever it ends, the hydrogen race clearly has begun.
This story appears in the May 9, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.