12/15/2003 | 4 MINUTE READ

Green Isn't Cheap

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At Michelin's fifth Challenge Bibendum we discover the internal combustion engine can be nearly as clean as an electric vehicle, and economics may make hydrogen a 'future technology' for longer than expected.


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Clean Isn’t Cheap
Before it disappeared from the market at the end of 2002, the Suzuki Esteem wagon had an MSRP of under $15,000. But sitting in the Sonoma, California, town square is an Esteem wagon sporting a price tag approaching $100,000. It’s powered by a hybrid-electric fuel cell powerplant built by Anuvu, Inc. of Sacramento, California. And some passersby are asking where they can get one! Has everyone here been breathing too much clean air?


Michelin Challenge Bibendum in San Francisco
San Francisco played host to the fifth Michelin Challenge Bibendum clean car "competition," the Left Coast providing a beautiful environment and a willing political backdrop for the collection of clean cars and trucks participating in the event.

Not according to Anuvu president and CEO Rex Hodge, they haven’t. The Esteem wagon is a proof-of-concept for a Clean Urban Vehicle (CUV) fleet used primarily for in-city deliveries and travel between cities and suburbs. Power comes from four 1.5-kW “Power X” fuel stacks (each with 18 proton exchange membranes, or PEMs, per stack), and a battery pack that can provide a supplemental 50 kW for acceleration. The “Super Suzuki” is capable of 70 mph, though range decreases dramatically as speed increases. “Our CUV can travel at that speed for about 40 miles,” says Hodge, adding that the capacity and recharge rate of the lead acid batteries are the main factors limiting longer jaunts at freeway speeds. Conversely, the hydrogen Suzuki has an in-city range of approximately 180 miles when speeds are kept at or below 35 mph.

When we point out that other companies participating in the event have fuel cell vehicles that can run at 85 mph, and have a higher energy density and longer range, Hodge responds: “Our competition is building mass production-intent fuel cells. That’s like Henry Ford building a Model T that produced 100 horsepower per liter.” Warming to the subject he insists, “The auto industry never would have developed had Ford taken a ‘run before you walk’ approach.” Hodge’s goal is to give the energy industry a reason to start establishing the hydrogen refueling infrastructure fuel cell vehicles will need.

Suzuki Esteem Wagon
The world's most expensive Suzuki Esteem wagon, or the vehicle that will 
make fuel cells-and hydrogen refueling stations-commonplace? Not even 
Henry Ford has the answer to that question.

ICE vs. Hydrogen, Round 1
“Hydrogen fuel cells won’t be able to compete on cost with internal combustion engines for decades.” No, that’s not Bob Lutz speaking, it’s Dr. Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California-Davis. Sperling even went so far as to suggest the switch from gasoline to hydrogen won’t happen overnight in the late industrialized countries. Multiple fuels and propulsion systems–including diesels, hybrid-electrics, and alternative fuels–will be part of the transition. Though he questions whether a developing country like China might not leap frog the more developed nations by pushing the development of cheap, reliable fuel cells.

ICE vs. Hydrogen, Round 2
On-road emission measurement of ULEV, SULEV, and PZEV vehicles have shown them to be more robust than expected. “We have seen much less in-use deterioration than we expected,” says Joseph Norbeck, director, Bourns College of Engineering, Center for Environmental Research and Technology, University of California-Riverside. “Emission results show these vehicles are essentially equivalent to electric vehicles in terms of pollution levels.”

The Future Isn’t Now
What will it take to keep oil imports at today’s level in 2020? Oh, a reduction in use of five million barrels per day. Which means average fuel economy above 60 mpg, and a 50% mileage improvement for heavy-duty vehicles. “Even an immediate 60% increase in CAFE–to 38.4 mpg–and new production from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge won’t close the gap between demand and domestic production by 2020,” claims Tom Gross of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. There has to be a solution, right? “We need fuel cell vehicles in the showroom, and hydrogen at fueling stations by 2020,” says Gross. Of course, that will require a tremendous reduction in fuel cell and hydrogen production costs, and improvements in hydrogen storage efficiency.

Courreges La Bulle R
It's called the Courreges La Bulle R, but it looks like something from Woody Allen's movie Sleeper. This electric vehicle drew crowds wherever it went, which-with its 50-mile range-wasn't far. So far there's been no word on potential sales outlets in Roswell, New Mexico.

But Here’s the Rub
Will people buy these new vehicles? Not if they have to compromise–or pay more than they’re willing–they won’t. “People want room, power, performance and amenities,” he says, “a trend that is driven by the growing gap in income between new vehicle buyers and the rest of the population,” says Walter McManus, executive director, Forecasting and Analytics at J.D. Power and Associates. Recent studies conducted by the company have shown that fuel economy is eighth on a list of 15 buying influences. Speed, handling, and performance are the most important factors.

It’s not that people are interested in fuel efficiency, they just aren’t willing to pay for it. Of the 45% surveyed in 2001 and 2002 interested in greater fuel economy, those interested in a gasoline-powered vehicle said they’d spend no more than $600 extra for greater fuel efficiency. Hybrid intenders would pay up to $800 more. And clean diesel advocates would shell out just $400 extra. “This is not a case of ‘build it and they will come,’” McManus says. “Automakers must provide a tangible benefit proportionate to the extra cost since new vehicle buyers are both rational and risk-averse.”