Detroit's Impossible Dream?

Fuel-cell cars on the road by 2004--that's the promise. Now it's crunch time

Two years ago, Bradford B. Bates of Ford Motor Co. predicted he wouldn't live to see cars powered by the space-age devices that are his passion--fuel cells--because that would be three decades in the future. Now Bates, who's 60 and a key fuel-cell researcher at Ford, says he expects to be able to purchase an electric car powered by the devices "before I give up driving." Indeed, he's now striving to fulfill Ford's promise to put a fuel-cell car on the road by 2004. Quips Bates: "I never apologize for being smarter today than I was yesterday."

Propelled by political and competitive pressures, Detroit has made an amazing conversion to environmentalism. Until now, the auto industry has been an environmental bad guy, lobbying fiercely against any treaty that would limit auto emissions in an effort to mitigate global warming. Now, barely a week goes by without one of the Big Three announcing an initiative to tackle global warming or reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

Most startling of all, though, is the pledge to bring out fuel-cell cars by the middle of the next decade. Suddenly the fuel cell, once found only on NASA spacecraft, has become Detroit's pet project for "going green."

Fuel-cell cars would appear to be the perfect antidote to today's ozone-depleting, smog-making vehicles. Through a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen, fuel cells generate the juice to power an electric motor--and the only emission out the tailpipe is a trickle of water. The technology is even ahead of current electric cars, with their limited-range batteries and long recharging times. With fuel cells, drivers would "recharge" by filling up at the same service station they've always used. That's because new technology can extract hydrogen gas from liquid fuels.

As a result, even Detroiters are predicting what was once unthinkable: the demise of the internal combustion engine. "Fuel cells have strong potential to be the best long-term solution," says General Motors Vice-Chairman Harry J. Pearce. "Our fuel-cell test vehicle gets 80 miles per gallon and has a driving range of 300 miles."

Sounds wonderful. But GM's prototype, like all the others in Detroit, hasn't left the lab yet. Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor Corp. have actually rolled out operational fuel-cell vehicles--but they're not yet for sale. Mercedes showed a tiny A-class car in September with a backseat and trunk stuffed with the various high-tech gizmos. The company is aggressively pursuing the technology and predicts it will sell 40,000 fuel- cell cars annually by 2006. Not to be outdone, Toyota has outfitted its RAV4 sport-utility vehicle with a fuel cell, and President Hiroshi Okuda pledged this month that Toyota would be first to market such a car.

To avoid being left in the dust, Detroit is throwing hundreds of millions at fuel-cell technology. Ford is investing $420 million to join with Mercedes and fuel-cell supplier Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Vancouver, B.C. Chrysler Corp. has hooked up with GM's Delphi unit, an auto-parts supplier, and expects to be cranking out 200,000 fuel-cell cars by 2010. And GM is reassigning legions of engineers to fuel-cell development and boosting their budget, according to company officials. "As the heat turns up, the dollars come in," says Andrew J. Farah, GM's engineering manager of battery systems.

SAFETY QUALMS. Yet despite the influx of cash and talent, the auto makers face daunting technical challenges to meet their new deadlines. "Our target to commercialize these vehicles by 2004 has a lot of risk," admits John R. Wallace, Ford's director of alternative-fuel vehicle programs. Bates puts it bluntly: "We don't know how to get there."

Cost is the biggest roadblock. If a Ford Taurus were outfitted with a fuel cell today, its sticker price could soar to $200,000, says Ford Chairman Alexander J. Trotman. That's because an electric car needs about 80 kilowatts of power for acceptable performance. With fuel cells, the per-kilowatt cost now stands at roughly $250. So just the fuel cell would run $20,000. Add on the tab for several other expensive elements (illustration, page 66), and a fuel-cell car is 10 times more costly. The per-kilowatt cost hasn't changed for two years. So why the new optimism? Detroit now expects it can slash costs to $25 per kilowatt, from the previous target of $35, says Bates. For now, though, that's just a dream. "It's amazing how the hurdles get higher," says Ballard Power Chief Financial Officer Mossadiq S. Umedaly.

Still, there has been substantial progress. Ten years ago, a fuel-cell vehicle would have cost $20 million--and only a city bus could have accommodated those hulking devices. Engineers have since shrunk the size needed for a car to something on the order of a suitcase. And the costly materials used in fuel cells are being replaced or the quantity needed is being reduced. For example, the cost of platinum used as a catalyst on the electrodes of an 80-kw fuel cell has dropped from $33,000 in 1984 to $500 or less. Projecting these trends forward, Umedaly says that by 2008, when Ballard expects to be producing 250,000 fuel cells annually, they'll cost no more than a traditional engine.

As fuel-cell costs have come down, however, another obstacle has risen: the need for an onboard fuel "refinery" to extract hydrogen from a liquid fuel. Selling consumers on the safety of modern techniques for storing hydrogen gas could take longer than perfecting an economical fuel-cell car. "Most of us remember the Hindenburg," says GM's Pearce. Besides, nobody wants to mount a torpedo-like storage tank on a car's roof. Finally, there are no hydrogen filling stations now--and building the infrastructure for distributing hydrogen to corner service stations would take billions of dollars.

That's why auto makers plan to run fuel cells on methanol or gasoline, using a so-called fuel processor to tap the hydrogen contained in the liquid. But these minirefineries are in their infancy--"at the stage that fuel cells were 5 or 10 years ago," says Christopher E. Barroni-Bird, Chrysler's head fuel-cell researcher.

Pulling hydrogen from gasoline was first demonstrated last October. The processor was developed by Arthur D. Little Inc. (ADL) of Cambridge, Mass., in conjunction with the Energy Dept. ADL plans to announce on Feb. 24 the formation of a company, Epyx Corp., to sell the processor, which can also suck hydrogen from methanol and ethanol, a corn-based fuel. "There used to be tremendous scorn for our technology," says Jeffrey M. Bentley, vice-president and technology director at ADL. "Now we get board-level attention."

The environment takes a hit with the ADL approach, though. Extracting hydrogen from methanol or gasoline produces carbon dioxide as a by-product--although only a fraction of the CO2 that combustion produces. "The fuel cell has great potential, but it's certainly not the solution to global warming," says David E. Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.

Another problem: It takes 10 minutes to warm up a fuel processor. Until then, the car must run on a 500-pound nickel-metal-hydride battery, which now costs $20,000. "That's completely unacceptable," says Barroni-Bird. "We need it to be less than one minute" to shrink the heft and cost of the battery.

PROMISES, PROMISES. Other pieces of the fuel-cell puzzle are falling into place. Impressive progress has been made in developing transmissions, for instance. While consumers haven't flocked to battery-powered cars, the R&D that went into them helped Detroit cut the cost and improve the reliability of the motors and generators. Insiders say that GM, thanks to its EV1 electric car, has an edge in electronic controllers, which coordinate all the high-voltage operations of the drive system. By 2000, these sources expect GM to have an electric transmission equal in cost to a traditional automatic transmission.

Still, researchers may have trouble keeping up with the public-relations machine. Already, engineers are looking for wiggle room in the pronouncements by senior managers. Even Ford's Bates has a hard time accepting the newfound optimism. "We really have no confidence these things will completely deliver on their promise," he admits. "But the promise is so great, you just have to give it a go." Or risk seeing more German and Japanese cars in driveways.

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