Tried and True

New fuels and alternative engines? Fugedaboudit! Auto makers say we're on the verge of a seismic technological change. We've heard this story before. Electric cars, gas-turbine engines and whisper-light plastic bodies were the panaceas proffered in the past. Today it's clean diesels, hybrids and fuel cells. Yet, when it comes to choosing between what we already make or going with something new, this

New fuels and alternative engines? Fugedaboudit! Auto makers say we're on the verge of a seismic technological change. We've heard this story before.

Electric cars, gas-turbine engines and whisper-light plastic bodies were the panaceas proffered in the past. Today it's clean diesels, hybrids and fuel cells.

Yet, when it comes to choosing between what we already make or going with something new, this industry goes with the tried and true every time. The only real change we've seen in the last 50 years is the application of electronics. And that was used to improve what we already make.

The problem all the alternatives face is that the gasoline-fueled, internal combustion engine keeps getting better. The strictest emission standard, California's Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV), already has produced a handful of cars that emit the same level of regulated emissions as a pure electric vehicle, once you include the emissions from the utilities that generate the electricity to recharge the batteries.

And a new generation of low-sulfur gasoline from the oil companies will allow them to run cleaner still. Burning cleaner gasoline still means you're burning gasoline, which doesn't reduce our dependence on oil. The “hydrogen economy” is supposed to solve that.

But where will we get our hydrogen? You can't drill a well and take it out of the ground. You have to manufacture it. That takes energy. And in my lifetime and yours, that energy is going to come from conventional sources.

Tremendous progress is being made in fuel cell technology, but is it enough? Let's say the cost of a fuel cell comes down to $10,000 by the end of the decade. And let's say a state-of-the-art V-8 engine with all available technology costs $5,000.

As head of engineering for any auto maker, I could easily approve $2,000 worth of componentry added to my V-8 and still be substantially cheaper than the fuel cell. Imagine what my engineers could do with fuel economy and emissions if I let them spend an additional two grand per engine.

Europe has been arguing that diesels are the fastest way to boost fuel economy and reduce emissions. But now a study from Stanford University suggests that soot is a leading cause of global warming, second only to carbon dioxide. And diesels are a primary source of soot. Oops!

That leaves hybrids. Why are sales of the Honda Insight, Civic hybrid and Toyota Prius going absolutely nowhere in Japan, a country where gasoline costs $5 a gallon? Because they are expensive and underpowered and don't deliver the fuel economy that's promised.

I fear we will change only when the planet starts to run out of oil. We've been warned since the 1920s that we're running out of oil. Yet, it might just happen. So don't stop working on the alternatives — but don't buy the hype that they're just around the corner.

John McElroy is editorial director of Blue Sky Productions and producer of “Autoline Detroit” for WTVS-Channel 56, Detroit.

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