Why Wait for Hydrogen to Kick In?

Detroit claims this promising fuel is the answer to greater efficiency. Meantime, other technologies could do the trick today

"I want my SUV" is one of the great mantras of the 21st century. So it's no wonder that Congress continues to turn a blind eye to proposed legislation that would force auto makers to increase the fuel efficiency of their cars and trucks. "This is still America, isn't it? Don't make the American people drive this little runt of a car," Senator Trent Lott (R-Miss.) barked as he stood in front of a small, light, fuel-efficient vehicle in Washington.

That was July 29, the same day the Senate, by a vote of 65 to 32, trash-canned an amendment to the yet-to-be-enacted energy bill that would have raised the Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standard for carmakers to 40 miles per gallon by 2014, up from the 27.5 mpg that has been on the books since 1975.

Instead of acting now, Congress, the Bush Administration, and U.S. auto makers want to wait and place their bets on hydrogen, one presumed fuel of the future. In January, President Bush announced the awkwardly named FreedomCAR and Fuel Initiative, which will provide $1.7 billion in federal funding over five years for hydrogen-powered fuel cells, hydrogen infrastructure and advanced automotive technologies. General Motors (GM ), one of the staunchest proponents of hydrogen-powered cars, already spends one-quarter of its advanced R&D budget -- an amount that it declines to reveal -- on hydrogen and fuel-cell technology.


  No doubt, converting to hydrogen is a worthy goal. The fuel cells it would power would use an estimated 40% to 65% of hydrogen's chemical energy, vs. the 15% to 20% of the energy in gasoline that internal combustion engines use. And whereas today's engines spew greenhouse gases, hydrogen burns clean: Its only emission is water that advocates claim is clean enough to drink.

Hydrogen has a drawback, though: Its practical application remains quite distant. Even by GM's ambitious timetable, hydrogen-powered cars won't be ready for manufacture until 2010. And allowing for time to work out bugs, and for consumer habits to change, it could be a decade after that before Americans regularly fill 'er up at the local hydrogen station.

Which raises the question: Why wait? Technology already exists that could raise conventional engines' fuel efficiency by 25% or more. It's simply a matter of making it a priority for auto makers to use it -- which in turn could help reduce pollution and the country's dependence on foreign oil.


  According to an analysis by the New York-based advocacy group Environmental Defense, if every new car on U.S. roads got 41 mpg vs. today's 24, by 2020 American oil consumption would fall from 11.8 million barrels a day to 7.8 million barrels, a 33% saving. Now, with the Blackout of 2003 putting the energy bill back on the front burner, Congress has another opportunity to do the right thing.

Fuel-efficient technologies abound right now. Take variable valve timing, which allows an engine to burn fuel more efficiently. The technology, environmentalists and carmakers agree, could cut automotive fuel consumption by 7% to 11%.

And VVT is hardly a cutting-edge concept. It was first used in 1989 on the Acura NSX, made by Honda (HMC ), to improve power and performance, though not fuel efficiency. Since then Honda has put it into several models including the Civic VX, which it produced from 1992-95. VVT and other technologies helped that vehicle achieve a 50% gain in fuel economy over earlier Civic models.


  An improvement in fuel-injection technology, known as direct injection, could also cut gas consumption. Instead of mixing gas and air outside the cylinder, then pumping it in for combustion, the elements are combined inside the cylinder. This allows the engine to use a leaner fuel mixture in stop-and-go traffic. According to Environmental Defense, direct-injection technologies can improve fuel efficiency by 4% to 20%.

Coming up next is so-called displacement on demand, which cuts an engine's average fuel consumption by 8% by calling on all cylinders only when necessary. Thus, an eight-cylinder SUV that a family bought to drive to the ski slopes transforms itself into a four-cylinder buggy when mom picks the kids up at soccer practice. GM expects 2 million of the engines to be in use by 2008.

Despite the availability of such technologies, Detroit maintains that hydrogen is the way forward. True, GM, the world's No. 1 carmaker, plans to "aggressively roll out" displacement-on-demand technology in several models from 2005 to 2007. In fact, its Saturn VUE and ION models already run on hybrid engines, which offer greater fuel efficiency and lower emissions.


  Yet Larry Byrnes, GM's vice-president for R&D and strategic planning, says incremental technologies will take auto mileage only so far. A "strong" hybrid, which offers 50% more fuel efficiency than today's vehicles, costs $3,500 to $6,000 more than a conventional engine, he notes. And that means it would take an American who drives 10,000 miles a year and pays $1.50 a gallon for gas 10 years before the hybrid becomes economically feasible.

"We've got to get to an end game that's energy-sustainable and environmentally sustainable," argues Byrnes. "But the end game also has to be something that customers are dying to buy. That's why we're focused on hydrogen and fuel cells."

Byrnes has a point. But even if GM could build a car that would fly out of showrooms, many other problems must be solved before hydrogen cars become a reality. The fuel has to be manufactured either from renewable sources, such as solar or wind, or from fossil fuels. For hydrogen-powered cars to reduce emissions and the nation's oil dependence, the hydrogen they run on would have to be created from renewable sources.


  And that, says David Keith, professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, could cost three times as much as creating it from fossil fuels -- a solution unlikely to be embraced by either oil company lobbyists or consumers. "The reason there's a broad coalition supporting hydrogen is because environmentalists, automakers, and oil companies all have widely different and incompatible ideas about where hydrogen will come from," Keith adds. "Unless you address up front how you're going to supply hydrogen, you're not making sense."

The argument that it's better to spend time and money on a truly transformative technology has so far delivered a political victory for carmakers. But it's a practical loss for the U.S. For more than a quarter century, Congress has declined to require the auto industry to do what's possible now in favor of the promise of a silver bullet in the future -- hydrogen being only the latest example.

To its credit, Detroit has done much of the work needed to meet a higher mileage standard. It had no choice if four-ton pickups and SUVs were to get better mileage than 18-wheelers. The progress the industry has already shown should make it easier for lawmakers to raise the CAFE standards -- so that everyone can realize the benefits of advanced auto technology right away, not the distant future.

Commentary by Jane Black, senior reporter covering technology for BusinessWeek Online in New York

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