So Much Hot Air

Columns From: 12/1/2001 Automotive Design & Production, , Contributing Editor

It didn’t take long for Audi to nearly sweep the design awards at the third Michelin Challenge Bibendum.

It didn’t take long for Audi to nearly sweep the design awards at the third Michelin Challenge Bibendum. Or for Honda’s CR-V to garner the light truck/SUV prize. As I sat in the courtyard of the Southern California Auto Club–site of the opening press conferences and design judging–I wondered what design had to do with clean cars. I didn’t understand the connection.

My cluelessness continued during the performance tests at the California Speedway the next day. To me, a challenge is a contest pitting the best from one team against the best from another. It’s winner-take-all, and often brings out the finest as competitors strive to prove their team preeminent. Only this wasn’t that kind of competition. It was a forum where different technologies could be compared.

So I walked the rows of competitors, compared the different technologies, and searched for answers. There were fuel cells, electric vehicles (EVs), hybrids, diesels (including a neat natural gas-powered version), gasoline engines, CNG, LPG, and the list went on. I tried them on for size.

The electrics were extremely range limited, while the fuel cells struck me as EVs with long-range hydrogen “batteries.” Allison’s serial hybrid bus (yes, there were busses there too, including a fuel cell version from Xcellsis) promised tremendous fuel savings during city use. Unfortunately, municipalities insist diesel is synonymous with dirty, despite the apparent cleanliness of Allison’s technology. So much for comparisons.

BMW brought its hydrogen-powered 7 Series to the party. Ford had a similarly fueled car. And rumbling along in the background for most of the day was a 427 Cobra replica running the same. Of all the competitors, these seemed to come closest to providing an answer to the twin problems of imported oil and fixed assets. For less than the cost of developing a fuel cell you can modify a current engine to run on hydrogen. Plus, metal halide storage technology promises to increase the amount of hydrogen a vehicle can carry in a limited space. Creating and distributing the fuel is still the biggest hurdle, though.

As my discussions continued, it became apparent that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t place cleanliness next to godliness in this case. The real-world goal for many participants is finding a clean alternative fuel source that can reduce, if not eliminate, oil imports. And–when asked–none disagreed with the notion that some of the higher-profile technologies on display only shifted the air quality burden to the electrical grid or other power source where it might be easier to handle.

Might. Maybe. It sounded like the debate surrounding the Kyoto treaty. In that debate, I sided with Robert H. Essenhigh, a professor of Energy Conversion in the Mechanical Engineering Dept. at Ohio State University. His “Air Pollution From Combustion Sources” course showed water, not carbon dioxide to be the dominant “greenhouse” gas, responsible for 97% to 99% of the thermal trapping in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide was responsible for the other 1% to 3%. To Essenhigh, controlling global warming through carbon dioxide emission reduction is futile. And if his numbers are right, I’d have to agree.

I’d also have to agree with those who said they couldn’t afford not to be a part of the Challenge Bibendum. Looking “green” is as important, maybe more so, than being green, and no one wants to be accused of doing nothing to clean the air. That was the real challenge in the Challenge Bibendum, vying for media time and share of mind. Taking a prize only adds to the bragging rights. Suddenly, my confusion was gone. At least until this environmental road show rolled into Las Vegas. But that’s another story.