Approaching the Greater LA Auto Show in January 2002 makes ones motorhead pulse race. Here are acres and acres of new, concept and even vintage cars of every marque sold in the United States. Its time for self control however because I know you can go to any newsstand or browse many equally glossy web sites and read about Ferraris and Porsches, or look at pictures of family minivans and sedans. In true the-vu tradition, my focus here is to be on the new alternative car culture, the formerly experimental world of electrics, hybrids and fuel-cell powered vehicles.
* Electric: Propelled by an electric motor, powered by rechargeable batteries.
* Hybrid: Propelled by an electric motor and also by a gasoline engine, with batteries that are charged by the vehicles own engine.
* Fuel-Cell: Propelled by an electric motor which derives its electricity from hydrogen gas and ordinary air combined in a fuel cell to create electricity.
The first car to hit us in the face is the Honda FCX-V4 fuel cell vehicle. In this ultra-modern looking vehicle, the hydrogen tanks are in front of the rear wheels, allowing the user to use the trunk as a trunk instead of the typical hydrogen tank display case. This idea also removes the chance of a Hindenburg style explosion when that cell phone wielding soccer mom slams her Ford Excursion into the back of your car. This really is an exciting new car and should be available in 2003. It should run for about 185 miles on a tank of hydrogen.
The official Honda line on fuel cell cars is: it will be at least ten or twenty years before the internal combustion engine loses its dominance. Honda expects to begin limited commercial distribution of fuel cell vehicles in 2003.
For now, Honda has higher hopes for the gasoline and electric hybrid cars such as the 1999 Insight and the brand new Civic IMA Hybrid. Unlike Toyota who left their top selling Corolla alone and introduced their hybrid with a fantastic new model called a Prius, Honda are putting out a hybrid version of Americas best selling small car, the Civic.
IMA stands for Integrated Motor Assist. The performance and practicality of this 2002 model is way ahead of the original hybrid, the 1999 Honda Insight. Apart from the slightly compromised trunk area, this Civic is as roomy as any other four door Civic, but it will deliver 50 mpg in the city or on the highway. This little hybrid should sell for around $20,000, and the fuel savings should make approximately 2,000 people per month decide to get one.
Daimler-Chryslers GEM line of tiny trucks are really electric golf carts taken to the next level. Big enough and useful enough to be used as primary transportation in tiny old towns or large private residential communities, their motto seems to be We dont need no steenking doors. Typical of todays Daimler-Chrysler, the GEM e825s are beautifully designed and they really are the Rolls-Royces of the indoor driving scene.
Fords competition to Daimler-Chryslers GEM line is the Think line. Not quite as pretty as the aforementioned GEMs, the Thinks are probably just as good and display nicely alongside the Think electronically assisted bicycles. Even though it wasn’t at the show, Ford is going to be introducing a research Ford Focus which runs on a mixture of diesel and a substance known as Urea. Urea is ammonia based, (just like urine is ammonia based) and its purpose here will be to remove that awful black diesel soot from the exhaust emissions. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to picture a future driver peeing into his gas tank to get Urea, but I’ll try.
GM decided to bypass the Greater LA Auto Show and wait for Monday 7th January at the Detroit show to announce their own fuel cell project. The GM guys came out and publicly announced that we’ll all probably end up running hydrogen fueled, fuel cell powered electric cars eventually. When that day comes, GM will finally have to stop accurately reproducing the driving experience of the 1976 Chevette in cars such as the 2002 Sunbird and Cavalier. Oh well, that’s progress I suppose.
If you want a tiny electric car with a 40 to 60 mile range and a top speed of 62MPH between 4 hour recharges, theres nothing quite like the extremely cute Nissan Hypermini. Amongst all the American cars it looks dangerously small, but put one in say Japan or Europe and it’s not much sillier looking than the standard compact cars in those places. The first time I saw a Hypermini it was barreling past me at top speed on a freeway in Los Angeles, which was an impressive demonstration of its capabilities. Up close and inside, it really is very attractive and much more interesting than the BMW Mini that even on media day drew a large crowd at the Greater LA Auto Show.
While the young lady upstairs at the main Nissan display stand stated with conviction that Nissan has been too busy to develop any alternative fuel technology or electric cars, the aforementioned Nissan Hypermini is on display at the stand of the Electric Vehicle Association of the Americas. This stand is not up with the big displays of the major manufacturers such as Nissan; its down in Kentia Hall with all the chrome rims, polishes and accessories.
Beside the gleaming paint of the Hypermini is a big car, which in comparison to the waxed perfection of everything else at this show looks decidedly grubby. There has been little effort to clean this one up after its 7,000 miles in the real world. Powered by Think, its the Ford P2000 Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle. The platform for this car is a Stretched Aluminum Ford Contour which accounts for its monstrously boring appearance. What the car represents, however, is far from boring.
This four-door sedan will run for 100 miles on a tank of hydrogen and reach speeds of 80+MPH. Last October, this car ran for 24 hours on Ford’s high speed track in Dearborn. It maintained an average speed of 58MPH including stops for hydrogen and driver changes. The average speed on track was 65MPH. Crawling on the ground beneath the back end I am amused to see the soft white polyurethane exhaust tips. The exhaust emissions of a hydrogen fuel cell powered car are of course nothing but clean plain water!
So how does a fuel cell car work? Very basically, Oxygen from the air compressor and hydrogen from the fuel tank combine in the fuel cells to create electricity. This is the sequence:
* Hydrogen fuel flows into the fuel cells.
* An air compressor supplies air to the fuel cells.
* Oxygen from the air combines with the hydrogen in the fuel cell to generate electricity, which is sent to the traction inverter module.
* The traction converter module converts the electricity for use by the motor/transaxle, which converts the electric energy into the mechanical energy, which turns the wheels.
* Water vapor and droplets are the only byproduct of the process and the exhaust is even drinkable.
Kateri Callahan, executive director of the EVAA tells the-vu that in routine demonstrations, this exhaust is actually collected into a cup and drunk. In this particular Ford the hydrogen tank is situated in the trunk, but its really an experimental car for demonstration purposes, hence the internationally acquired road dust covering everything under the hood. This ugly Contour is simply just a mule for the fuel cell process.
How does it drive? Like an electric car! The electricity is coming from the fuel cell process as opposed to storage batteries, but its like driving any electric car, except that you can fill the hydrogen tank in a couple of minutes which is quicker than charging batteries for hours and hours.
Parked around the EVAA stand, we also see a Honda Insight, an all-electric Toyota RAV4, a beautiful, traditionally styled, 40 mile range Scooter by Rad-2-Go, A Prima electric bicycle, an enclosed 2001 model Ford Think, Zapworlds Power Ski electric pull-along device for skaters, a sea scooter for scuba divers and even a plug-in hybrid electric Suburban and an electric US Post Office van. The post office has around 500 of these in use today, mostly in California. Mail carriers either have to keep their trucks idling or shut them off and re-start them repeatedly, so electric is ideal for their average 30 mile routes.
Kateri predicts that we will be using electric drive systems in the future and there will be room for all of the systems. She says it may be a decade before we see a viable commercial fuel cell vehicle, but even then there should be a market for lower speed battery powered vehicles also.
Whereas the Ford P2000 gets all of its energy from the hydrogen in the tank, Daimler-Chrysler are experimenting with the onboard production of hydrogen using methanol as a fuel source. Methanol can be a renewable fuel source if it is produced from grain, but currently its often made from coal, granddaddy of the fossil fuels.
So who are the EVAA? They are an industry association working to advance electric vehicle transportation technologies in the United States and they represent the US in the World Electric Vehicle Association (WEVA). They are quite a political force, defending the planet Earth from the forces of carelessly burned fossil fuel. For a more serious definition I recommend their website at http://www.evaa.org
Little Charge, Much Burn
Electric, hybrid and fuel cell powered vehicles are of course in the tiny minority at this vast international car show, and the proportion of giant trucks to normal cars is still alarmingly high, but it is at least reassuring to note that the popular full size SUVs of today are clean. While they may use as much fuel per mile as your 1969 Olds 98, their annual emissions are about the same as those put out by a dash around the block in the old barge, so youre not exactly choking the planet when you shine your headlights down through our rear windows and whack cyclists on the back of the head with your door mirrors.
The real challenge is two-fold. Not only to we need to develop alternative long-range propulsion, we also need to change our mindset so that tiny cars and scooters can be seriously considered for use on shorter trips.
After walking ten or fifteen miles across the carpet of the Los Angeles Convention Center, my legs were wishing Id been mounted on one of Dean Kamens Segways!
Writer Jeffrey the Barak is also the publisher of the-vu