The early optimism for hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles got a reality check this year. With the exception of General Motors, virtually no automaker, supplier, energy company or government official expects fuel cell vehicles to be ready for mass production until at least 2020.
Even GM has softened its once bullish position on fuel cells. Instead of having a complete vehicle ready for production in 2010, GM says it plans to have a fuel cell powertrain tested and validated by decade end.
Because fuel cell vehicles are so far off, and because automakers need a midterm strategy to reduce consumption and lower emissions, gasoline-electric hybrids moved into the lead this year as the quickest and least expensive way to achieve those goals. The new generation of clean-running diesels will be another fuel-saving powertrain available in North America, but more on that later.
Gasoline-electric hybrids will account for slightly less than 200,000 of the roughly 17 million vehicles expected to be sold in the United States for 2005. But most major automakers have or will be investing in the technology and launching hybrid models starting next year.
Hybrids are not expected to be widely available in Europe until 2008 or 2009. They likely won't get as warm a reception as in the United States. Hybrids will be competing against thrifty diesel engines, which already account for more than half of new-car sales in most of Europe.
GM, BMW AG and DaimlerChrysler AG formed a partnership that will see all three companies use a dual-mode hybrid system with two electric motors that reduces fuel consumption in both city and highway driving. The powertrain will be used in SUVs starting in 2008.
Coming from Ford
Ford Motor Co., fresh off the success of its Escape Hybrid SUV in the United States, launched a Mercury version called the Mariner and said it will boost hybrid production to 250,000 units in five years. The next hybrids from Ford will be the Fusion and Mercury Milan compact sedans.
Ford plans to build on the success of its Escape Hybrid SUV by offering a slew of new hybrid models.
Diesels will return to North America in significant numbers starting in 2008. Low-sulfur diesel fuel will be introduced in the United States in late 2006. By using urea to clean the exhaust, DaimlerChrysler, BMW, GM and Ford will meet strict new emission regulations that require diesel engines to run as cleanly as gasoline engines.
DaimlerChrysler already has confirmed that diesels are slated for several U.S.-bound Mercedes-Benz models starting in 2008. The Chrysler group has been successful selling the diesel version of the Jeep Liberty; Chrysler also could get a diesel-powered Chrysler 300 sedan and Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV.
Meanwhile, engineers are working on both gasoline and diesel internal combustion engines. Breakthroughs could see dramatic improvements in emissions and efficiency.
HCCI -- short for homogeneous charge compression ignition -- is a hot topic at automakers. According to GM, HCCI uniformly mixes fuel with a higher proportion of air and then uses high compression, not a spark plug, to ignite the mixture in the cylinder.
Fuel cell hybrid
Ford last year started production of a small fleet of Ford Focus FCV sedans for testing in the United States and Canada. FCVs also will be tested in Germany.
The FCV is a hybrid car that uses a fuel cell powertrain supplied by Ballard Power Systems Inc. as well as a nickel metal-hydride battery pack and a brake-by-wire electrohydraulic regenerative braking system. The fuel cell engine converts chemical energy into electric energy using hydrogen fuel and oxygen from the air. The electric energy then powers the vehicle's electric drive motor, producing only water vapor and heat as byproducts.
Finally, fuel cell researchers are making progress but still struggling with some tough problems. The cost per kilowatt hour is still about 10 times too high, cold-weather performance is not up to internal combustion engine standards and no one knows how to produce and distribute hydrogen in enough quantity to replace gasoline.
You may e-mail Richard Truett at [email protected]