TWO WEEKS ago during a brief visit to Europe, I was able to see the research center for the fuel-cell vehicles that are being developed by DaimlerChrysler.
Daimler is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to try to develop a viable alternative to the battery-powered electric car. We probably won't know for a couple of decades whether the fuel cell is the answer.
It is an impressive operation, combining Daimler work with that of the leading fuel-cell company, Ballard Power Systems of Vancouver, British Columbia. With Ballard, both D/C and Ford Motor Co. have spent tremendous amounts of time, money and energy to develop a power source for a vehicle.
Almost everyone is betting on the electric car as the real competition for the internal combustion engine. Less certain is just what will power the electric motors that will run cars, trucks and buses.
Until recently, we saw the battery-powered electric car as the zero-emissions alternative to the gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle. But today, just about everyone agrees that a battery-powered electric car won't meet most people's needs. People in the USA, for example, won't accept battery-powered vehicles with limited range and long recharge time. Every attempt to market a real battery-powered car has failed.
But electric vehicles have taught manufacturers a great deal about motors and electronics. All that is needed is a long-range, reliable electric power source.
It will be a long time before anyone thinks seriously about killing off internal combustion engines. The petroleum infrastructure alone gives petroleum-powered vehicles a 100-year head start. That's one of the primary reasons automakers are considering using on-board gasoline to create the hydrogen for fuel cells, using the infrastructure that is in place.
In the next couple of decades, we'll see more alternatives to internal combustion. In the beginning, they will be modest experiments using vehicles that stay in a confined area, such as delivery trucks, buses or even taxis. That way, refueling is easier.
But as those new technologies improve, we'll see vehicles that offer competitively priced alternatives to gasoline and diesel. That's when it will get interesting.
The next few decades will present exciting developments in powerplants and vehicles. They will offer the consumer more choices, and safer, cleaner automobiles.