If, by chance, you're heading to the Alternative Fuels and Vehicles conference in Orlando in April, bring your lab coat and goggles. There will be a biodiesel exhibit, a "summit" on fuels produced with algae, and seminars on propane, natural gas, and biomethane. And if you thought hydrogen was the holy grail of fuels, guess again: This year, it's battery power.
Ever since the automobile displaced the horse and buggy a century ago, almost all cars have run on fuel derived from oil. But a new revolution is underway, and this time, it's the fuel that's poised for a makeover. At this year's Detroit Auto Show, auto execs who used to rhapsodize about hood scoops and horsepower enthused about emission-free tailpipes and energy independence. General Motors is staking its resurgence on a battery-powered car that plugs into a household receptacle. Other big automakers are seeking the same kind of killer app that Toyota found when it introduced the Prius hybrid almost 10 years ago. "This is about the new DNA of the automobile," says Larry Burns, GM's research and development chief. "The recession and its impact on the auto industry amplifies the need for a diversification strategy."
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There are a lot of compounds besides gasoline that are capable of powering a car, and government subsidies have spurred the adoption of a few, including corn-based ethanol in the United States and diesel in Europe. But gasoline has prevailed because it still offers power and convenience at a lower cost than almost anything else.
That equation obviously shifted for a while last year, when gas prices in the United States crested at $4 per gallon and buyers fled big vehicles. Although pump prices have drifted back below $2—partly because of the global recession and slack demand—automakers are planning for a future in which gas once again hits $4 and then goes higher. Other factors are working against gasoline, too: discomfort over imported oil, concerns about global warming, and technological advances that could make alternatives cheaper.
So, for the next decade or so, there will be a worldwide energy derby as the backers of half a dozen plausible fuel systems battle one another for prominence under the hood. But vehicle design and infrastructure needs will eventually coalesce around one or two winners to take advantage of high-volume production, which is essential to lowering costs.
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Ethanol and other biofuels are appealing because they'd require only modest modifications to today's internal combustion engines. But so far, biofuels don't seem to represent the dramatic leaps in energy efficiency—or the sweeping transformation of the automobile—that many engineers think is possible. If an automotive revolution arrives, it will probably be powered by hydrogen or electricity. Engineers still have several puzzles to solve, like dramatically lowering cost, getting the fuel to consumers, and determining the best way for it to power the wheels. The following prototypes and early production vehicles demonstrate the most promising alternatives to gasoline. Their success or failure will help determine the kinds of cars Americans are driving a decade from now.
Honda Clarity. This road-ready prototype gets the equivalent of 74 miles per gallon, with good performance and no tailpipe emissions. Here's how: Hydrogen stored in a tank mixes with oxygen in a "fuel cell" about the size of a carry-on suitcase that functions as an onboard power plant. The electricity it produces powers a motor that spins the wheels, while a lithium-ion battery kicks in every now and then to supplement the car's power, just as in a hybrid. The powertrain is novel, yet the driver presses the pedals and turns the steering wheel the same as in any other car. "Honda brought in clean technology without changing the way driving feels," says Jack Cusick, an assistant principal in Orange County, Calif., who is one of about 200 drivers who will participate in a prototype test program.
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That's a key lesson. Engineers at Honda and other automakers say that for new technology to catch on, familiarity is vital. A few buyers might be willing to learn new habits or accept trade-offs, but mainstream drivers just want to get in and go. The Clarity lets them. It holds four comfortably, with a big trunk, and has the luxury features of an Acura RL. It can travel up to 280 miles on a tank of hydrogen, at a cost per mile that's less than half that of gasoline. The fuel is even self-serve.
But the Clarity is still a costly experiment that's a long way from most highways. The drivers in Honda's test program pay about $600 a month to lease the Clarity, but that's a fraction of the car's real costs. That's because some of the fuel-cell components are still fairly exotic. "We need to reduce cost by a factor of 10, over 10 years," says Ben Knight, Honda's North American research and development chief. "That puts it into the range of conventional vehicles."
There are other problems. Hydrogen needs to be shipped and stored under pressure, which would require a new nationwide network of filling stations. There are a few hydrogen stations scattered around Southern California and other regions, but making the fuel widely available would probably require a massive program subsidized by the federal government. GM, Ford, Toyota, and other automakers have hydrogen programs too, and if the technology catches on, their combined might could sway Washington. But many politicians still favor the oil economy, and with Washington spending trillions of dollars to combat the recession, funding for other huge projects is likely to be scarce.
BMW Hydrogen 7. BMW's hydrogen strategy is different from Honda's. Instead of channeling hydrogen to a fuel cell, this modified 7-series sedan burns it in the same internal-combustion engine that burns gas. The car has two fuel tanks, two fuel doors, and two fuel gauges on the dash. There's a button on the steering wheel, labeled H2, that toggles between fuels when you push it, sending either hydrogen or gasoline into the cylinders. The dual setup entails lots of compromises, like reduced engine power and limited storage. And the Hydrogen 7 isn't perfectly clean; it emits trace amounts of nitrous oxide, enough to displease hard-core environmentalists.
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BMW points out that the Hydrogen 7, which is a demonstration car not available for sale or lease, is meant as a half-measure until hydrogen is widely available. Meanwhile, the car highlights a few adaptations that drivers will have to make. When the car is running on hydrogen, for instance, the trip computer expresses fuel economy as kilograms per 100 kilometers. In normal driving, the Hydrogen 7 averages about 3.5 kilograms per 100 kilometers—roughly 30 miles per gallon. Government regulators are still working on standardized ways to measure hydrogen, including fuel efficiency and even how to price it.
Chevrolet Volt. Will the electric car save GM? Will it run as advertised, without epic breakdowns? Will anybody even buy it? In 100 years of automotive history, there may never have been an unproven vehicle with so much riding on it. "If they pull it off, they will have leapfrogged Toyota," predicts William Holstein, author of the new book Why GM Matters.
Here's the scheme: Drivers will charge the Volt at home, from a regular outlet, like a laptop or cellphone. The car's lithium-ion battery will power the car for up to 40 miles without any gasoline or tailpipe emissions. If you need to drive farther, a small gas engine will power the motor, ensuring that drivers don't suffer from "range anxiety." GM says that charging the car at home will cost less than $1 per day and drain less energy than it takes to run a refrigerator.
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The prototype that GM has been showing off is a handsome four-seater with touch-sensitive dashboard controls and a white center stack reminiscent of an iPod. The dashboard display looks like the screen of a Sony PSP. In electric mode, the ride is supposedly as smooth as a video game. "All of us who drive these, we're almost overwhelmed with the feeling of luxuriousness," says Frank Weber, chief engineer for the Volt.
Sounds captivating. But a lot could go wrong. The huge, rechargeable lithium-ion battery—the first automotive battery of its kind—could turn out to be less reliable or durable than consumers will tolerate. The price is expected to be as high as $40,000 and could rise beyond most buyers' reach. Of course, because GM is dependent on billions in federal aid, the company could kill or scale back the program, or even declare bankruptcy. But if GM delivers the Volt as promised, it could mark the beginning of a dramatic come-from-behind story.
Toyota Prius plug-in. Compared with GM, Toyota has been downright secretive about its own plug-in, a modified version of the newly designed 2010 Prius that will debut this spring. There's no official website for the Prius plug-in, and Toyota hasn't announced a launch date.
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In important ways, however, the SuperPrius, as some inside Toyota call it, will be very different from the Volt. Part of its lithium-ion battery pack will be rechargeable at home, but its all-electric range will be just more than 10 miles. Once that charge is exhausted, the Prius plug-in will operate like a typical hybrid, switching between the gas engine and a second portion of the battery pack, based on which mode the onboard computers deem most efficient. By early next year, Toyota should be testing 500 Prius plug-ins with fleet customers, including 150 in the United States.
Toyota's marketing claims for the Prius plug-in won't be as dramatic as GM's pitch for the Volt. But Toyota's strategy of using a smaller, more proven lithium-ion battery has advantages. It keeps cost and weight down, which means the Prius plug-in could end up being more reliable and cheaper. "Our plug-in will be 'excuse free,' " insists Bill Reinert, Toyota's national manager for advanced technology. "We want a car that people will drive 150,000 miles and 100,000 people will buy." Toyota also plans to apply lessons from the Prius plug-in to a smaller, all-electric commuter car due to go on sale in 2012, with a range of about 50 miles. Even if the Prius plug-in outperforms the Volt, other electrics on the way from Nissan, Mini, Smart, and others will challenge its primacy.
Tesla Roadster and Fisker Karma. These two novelty cars are turning heads throughout the industry. The all-electric, $110,000 Roadster, which hit the streets last year, is powered by several thousand lithium-ion batteries strung together and charged at home. "When Tesla announced they were building a car, I thought, 'If some little West Coast outfit can do this, we can no longer stand by,'" GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz said in 2007, explaining the origin of the Volt program. The $88,000 Karma sedan is a plug-in hybrid due in 2010. The company says it will go up to 50 miles on battery power before its gas engine kicks in. An optional solar roof will even help cool the car and charge the battery.
The low-riding Roadster and the spacious, luxurious Karma are gorgeous, innovative cars. But the odds are stacked against them. The manufacturers, Tesla and Fisker, are tiny start-ups dwarfed by giants such as GM and Toyota, which can spread the costs of new technology over thousands or even millions of cars. Tesla—which has delivered only about 150 cars so far—has even applied for $350 million in low-cost loans from the Energy Department, prompting critics to ask why taxpayers should help fund a Silicon Valley lab experiment.
Both start-ups probably entertain hopes of a purchase or big investment by one of the major car companies, which might have been plausible before the entire auto industry went into a tailspin. But now, their best hope might be a quick economic recovery and the speedy return of $4 gas. Otherwise, these cars of the future could end up in a museum, while Americans continue to drive relics of the past.