Among DaimlerChrysler's executives, few stand out as being obsessed with the environment. But Ferdinand Panik, a trim, 58-year-old engineer, is an exception. Having worked seven years for Mercedes-Benz in the crowded Brazilian city of São Paulo, he's convinced that the auto industry must clean up its act. "If we don't do something about energy use and traffic" in developing markets such as Brazil, "we'll create a big problem for them--and for the world," he says.
Panik has found his niche as head of Daimler's $1 billion fuel-cell car project, the most advanced effort in ecologically clean autos anywhere. In 1997, when DaimlerChrysler (DCX ) became the first company to announce plans to turn its research project into a commercially viable business, Panik was put in charge. Trained as an electrical engineer, he had worked in Brazil in truck and bus development, and for 16 years in Daimler's vehicle research department in Stuttgart, becoming its director in 1983.
Despite technological challenges, Panik is optimistic about being able to produce fuel-cell autos economically. "It's almost within our grasp," he says. Fuel-cell cars convert hydrogen-rich fuel into electricity to power the engine--but now cost eight times more than regular cars to build.
Panik is excited about DaimlerChrysler's new Necar 5, which squeezes fuel-cell equipment into the floorpan of an A-Class Mercedes. He plans to have a fuel-cell model on the market by 2004--a goal that has spurred such rivals as Toyota Motor Corp. (TM ) to scramble to catch up. By 2010, Panik expects to be making fuel-cell cars for little more than gasoline-powered cars cost. Maybe clean cars and profits can go together after all.