Fuel cell vehicles won't be mass produced for at least eight years under optimistic predictions, but DaimlerChrysler says the trip completed Tuesday by its NECAR 5 vehicle shows the promise of fuel cell engines.
"I will not tell anybody how much doubt we had when we started 16 days ago," Ferdinand Panik, head of DaimlerChrysler's fuel cell group, said after the car pulled up at the Capitol at the end of its journey. "It runs much, much better than we believed. It's a big, big step for a new idea, trying to look beyond the capability of fossil fuels."
Fuel cells can run on hydrogen or other fuels, such as ethanol, methanol and gasoline that can be converted into hydrogen. Hydrogen is combined with oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction that produces electricity that powers the vehicle.
Pure hydrogen-fed fuel cells produce only water — no harmful emissions — but hydrogen is a flammable gas that poses safety questions, especially when crashes occur, and engineers continue work on safe onboard storage systems. Those using other fuels pollute less than gasoline engines but have some emissions and produce less power than pure hydrogen.
The NECAR 5 — "New Electric Car, Fifth Generation" — is a subcompact Mercedes-Benz A-Class that ran on methanol converted to hydrogen. Since methanol is not available at the corner gas station but had to be delivered to points along the route for refueling every 300 miles.
The trip began on May 20 at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and spanned 3,262 miles, which DaimlerChrysler says is a record for a fuel cell vehicle traveling on public roads. Traveling time was 85 hours over a span of 16 days, an average of about 38 mph, but the car reached speeds of more than 90 mph.
Converting the U.S. automobile refueling system to hydrogen or other convertible fuels is among the largest hurdles for fuel cell technology. The Bush administration launched a partnership with domestic automakers in January to develop a system of hydrogen refueling stations and spur the growth of hydrogen fuel cells.
Other problems will keep the technology from reaching the mass market for at least a decade, experts say, including onboard storage of flammable hydrogen, reliability, durability and cost. The NECAR 5 is a concept car worth more than $1 million. Although costs are declining, the technology is far too expensive to sell for a profit.
"Obviously there is more work to be done before the vehicle is in the mass market, but this trip shows it can clear some of the customer needs hurdles," said David Friedman, senior analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists' clean vehicles program. "Now all they need to do is do it with a hydrogen version."
Most major automakers plan to begin making some fuel cell vehicles powered by convertible fuels available for limited fleet sales within a year, such as to government buyers who can carefully monitor performance.
DaimlerChrysler plans to have 30 buses working in 10 European cities next year. Ford Motor Co. has a fuel cell Focus aided by a battery for acceleration that it plans to lease for fleet customers in early 2004. General Motors Corp. demonstrated a Chevrolet S-10 pickup last month that converts gasoline to hydrogen.
Increasing numbers of manufacturers also are offering the public hybrids that save fuel with an electric motor that helps the gasoline engine power the vehicle.
The NECAR 5 got about 40 miles per gallon of fuel, less than some vehicles sold today, but Panik said the emissions were a fraction of gasoline-powered cars.
The car was guided by a global positioning satellite system and accompanied by three other vehicles carrying replacement parts and tools.
The car broke down once, as the team approached the Nevada border on the first day. Water got into a connector that had to be replaced, which cost the team about a day of traveling time. The team also replaced two belts, four fuel filters and a plastic bottle that contains cooling water.
Team leader Wolfgang Weiss said the repairs could have been needed on a similar trip with any other car. He said the NECAR 5 performed better than expected, and the fuel cell remains in great shape.
"We can turn around and drive back, but I don't want the fear that we won't make it," he said.