DaimlerChrysler AG sees alternative powertrains as the key to achieving lower emissions and better fuel economy on future vehicles. By 2004 the automaker will have invested more than $1.4 billion in fuel-cell technology and research alone.
Still, there are major obstacles to overcome before fuel cells or other hybrid technologies replace internal combustion engines as the propulsion system of choice.
Chief among them is cost.
Bernard Robertson, senior vice president of engineering technologies for the Chrysler group, says it is difficult to make a business case for hybrids or fuel cells.
High development costs cannot be absorbed without significant production volumes, he says.
That's why Chrysler is targeting high-volume vehicles, such as light trucks, for hybridization first. Moreover, Chrysler believes four-wheel-drive vehicles offer the highest potential for cutting costs and fuel consumption without overloading on intricate technology.
Chrysler's first production hybrid will be a Dodge Durango sport-utility scheduled for 2003.
Seeking tax credits
In the hybrid Durango, a gasoline engine and automatic transmission drive the rear wheels and an electric motor drives the front wheels. Eliminating the conventional four-wheel-drive system saves money and helps pay for the hybrid system.
Chrysler was hoping federal tax credits would offset the approximately $3,000 jump in price for the hybrid Durango compared to a nonhybrid version. But Congress has yet to approve the credit. Robertson says Chrysler will go forward with production anyway while hoping the tax credit will become a reality.
But the cost issue still looms - and has gained new significance as DaimlerChrysler searches for ways to return the Chrysler group to profitability. A $512 million third quarter operating loss in 2000 sparked a management shuffle and renewed emphasis on pinching pennies. The impact on hybrid powertrain development programs remains to be seen.
Methanol A class
Meanwhile, Mercedes plans to offer a fuel cell drive system in a car in 2004. It most likely will be based on the Mercedes A class.
Last November, DaimlerChrysler CEO Juergen Schrempp unveiled Necar 5, the fifth generation of its 'New Electric Car.'
In Necar 5, the fuel cell system fits in the underbody of the A class. That eliminates bulk, which has been a significant downside to fuel cells. The systems were so big they left little room for people or cargo. Necar 5 retains the interior space of a production A-class car.
Necar 5 uses a methanol fuel cell. An on-board reformer extracts hydrogen from the methanol, which reacts with oxygen in the air to generate electricity to power the drive system.
Chrysler uses similar technology in its Jeep Commander 2, a second generation fuel cell concept that puts the technology in a sport-utility.