Alternative power sources for autos drive into spotlight

Suddenly, alternative auto power seems close.

The big Frankfurt auto show in Germany, home of the speed-limitless autobahn, bristles with vehicles aimed more at saving petroleum than gulping it. Here in the USA, General Motors GM is about to put the largest hydrogen fuel-cell test fleet into consumer hands, and Honda HMC is gearing up to launch fuel-cell, diesel and hybrid models.

Here's a look at what's happening in the USA and what stands out at Frankfurt.

In the USA

•General Motors.

Starting in January, the automaker plans to begin loaning 100 Chevrolet Equinox hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to people in and around Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. Called Project Driveway, it involves the largest fuel-cell test fleet and will last two years.

GM will live up to its original pledge of a fall launch by putting a few of the vehicles into media test fleets this year.

The experiment is supposed to provide GM with real-world feedback on how ordinary users get along with the exotic, petroleum-free vehicles.

Fuel-cell vehicles use hydrogen gas in an electro-chemical reaction to power electric motors that drive the vehicles. Water vapor is the exhaust. The vehicles resemble ordinary Chevy Equinox SUVs, but the gasoline engine and fuel tank are replaced by fuel-cell hardware.

Because there are only a handful of hydrogen stations in the USA, GM is providing temporary filling sites that can pump the hydrogen gas at 10,000 pounds per square inch, packing more into the vehicles' fuel tanks to provide a longer driving range than possible with the 5,000-pound pressure that's typical. GM believes that 17,000 to 20,000 hydrogen stations across the USA would put the fuel within a few miles of 80% of all motorists, and within reasonable driving distance of 100%. By contrast, there are about 170,000 gasoline stations in the USA.

GM says it will provide the vehicles at no charge for about three months at a time.

GM is still choosing people to get the fuel-cell Equinoxes. You can apply at www.chevy.com. Click on "fuel solutions," then on " fuel cells."

•Honda.

The automaker continues to pledge that a sleek, four-door, fuel-cell car will go into limited production next year and be loaned or leased to individuals. It won't say how many FCX hydrogen fuel-cell cars it will produce, however. It currently has two fuel-cell cars in the hands of California residents.

Honda also says it will put a small, fuel-efficient, gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle on sale in the USA in 2009, smaller and less expensive than the Civic hybrid, but — Honda swears — big enough for a family. Honda hopes to sell 100,000 of those a year, a big increase over the 28,000 Civic hybrids it has averaged the past two years.

Late in '09, Honda has promised a four-cylinder diesel in a model it won't disclose. A V-6 diesel follows, but Honda won't give a timetable.

In Frankfurt

•BMW.

The German automaker showed a gasoline-electric hybrid version of the X6 SUV that's due in the USA next year. But BMW didn't promise to build the hybrid.

The hybrid X6 displayed at Frankfurt uses what BMW calls ActiveHybrid technology. It teams a gasoline engine with two electric motors to boost fuel economy 20% over gasoline-only drivetrains.

The gasoline X6 is to be manufactured at Spartanburg, S.C., alongside the car company's X3 and X5 crossovers.

•Hyundai.

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