WASHINGTON - With Necar 4, the latest in a series of fuel-cell concept cars, DaimlerChrysler is serving up the dessert before the dinner.
Necar 4 is a driveable prototype that seats five, travels 280 miles on a fill-up of hydrogen and emits only water vapor from the tailpipe. But Necar 4, which is short for New Electric Car, is just a diversionary glance at a distant future in which hydrogen will be available for use in automobiles.
In the meantime, DaimlerChrysler will concentrate on methanol and is working on 'Necar X,' a methanol-powered concept car. The company wants to mass-produce fuel-cell cars by 2004.
Necar 4 was shown to reporters here by DaimlerChrysler chairmen Robert Eaton and Juergen Schrempp. They were in the capital for their first face-to-face meetings with Beltway insiders since the merger of Daimler-Benz AG and Chrysler Corp. Incentives or subsidies for fuel-cell vehicles were not part of the discussions, they said.
HYDROGEN SHORT CUT
Unlike previous Necars, Necar 4 has a 70-kilowatt fuel cell packaged entirely below the floor of a compact Mercedes-Benz A-class car. Seventy kilowatts is enough electricity to light 700 100-watt household light bulbs.
A fuel cell makes electricity by passing hydrogen molecules through a membrane to strip away electrons and create electric current. The protons rejoin the electrons on the other side and merge with oxygen to make water vapor.
To make the fuel-cell unit fit under the seats of an A-class car, DaimlerChrysler took a big shortcut by designing the car to run on liquid hydrogen, which does not require special reformers as do other designs using methanol and gasoline. DaimlerChrysler officials admit hydrogen may not be ready for widespread automotive use for another 20 to 50 years.
'Seen in a vacuum, particularly if one has read and heard a lot about fuel cells, (Necar 4) doesn't move the needle,' says Bernard Robertson, DaimlerChrysler's senior vice president for engineering technologies.
'But if you look at where we've come from and where we're trying to get to, its a fairly significant landmark on the road to practicality.'
Necars 1 (1994) and 2 (1996) were large, hydrogen-powered vans stuffed with equipment.
The methanol fuel cell in Necar 3 (1998) fit in the tiny A class, but with little room for passengers or cargo.
Necar 4 is the first prototype to feature the same seating arrangement as the stock vehicle. But at 3,800 pounds, it weighs 1,100 pounds more than the stock A class, and its handmade fuel cell costs up to $350,000 more than a gasoline engine because of its exotic materials and lack of mass-produced parts.
CHEAP AND AVAILABLE
Weight and cost are being attacked in future prototypes, says Ferdinand Panik, DaimlerChrysler fuel-cell director.
The company plans to build three more Necar prototypes before production begins, each with smaller, lighter and cheaper components.
Unlike Necars 1, 2 and 4, Necars 5, 6 and 7 will be powered by methanol, Panik says.
Methanol fuel cells emit small amounts of greenhouse gases and require bulky reformers in the car to separate the hydrogen, but methanol can be made from cheap and readily available natural gas.
'Hydrogen is always the best fuel for fuel-cell cars because it allows the best efficiency and zero emissions,' Panik says.
'But the infrastructure must change, and our target is to build a methanol infrastructure first.'