Cars of Tomorrow May Help Us Kick Oil Habit

The world's first commercially available hydrogen-powered car may hit the road as early as next month.

Honda Motors Co. says that it has already started mass production on the FCX Clarity, a zero-emissions vehicle introduced two years ago as a concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show. It will be offered next month at select California dealerships as part of a limited lease program.

The announcement comes on the heels of last week's news that Toyota plans to roll out rechargeable plug-in hybrids by 2010.

Some see the latest moves as signs that recent spikes in oil prices have prompted automakers to accelerate the delivery of alternatives to gas-powered cars.

"Whenever car companies are doing something pretty novel, they tend to very cautious," says Joseph Romm, a former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Energy. "Toyota probably wanted to wait a few more years to improve the technology, but when the price of gas shot through the roof, they started to understand that the cars will sell like hot cakes."

Some road-ready options like natural gas vehicles have already begun to feed growing demand. "Phones are running off the hook over here," says Richard Kolodziej, President of the International Association for Natural Gas Vehicles. "People are asking how to either convert their cars to natural gas or to buy one for themselves."

But to be successful in the long run, a next-generation automobile needs to meet environmental standards and be affordable and flexible enough to fit a range of American lifestyles. And while the top contenders offer several benefits over your typical gas-guzzler, they have drawbacks too.

Natural Gas Vehicles

Natural gas vehicles have been around since the '70s, but haven't caught on in the United States like they have in countries such as Brazil and Germany. Of the estimated 5 million NGVs on the streets today, only 130,000 are driven along U.S. roads.

Such a fact may seem surprising considering there's a lot to like, on the surface at least. Not only is natural gas abundant in the United States, it produces lower emissions and costs about a third less than what's offered at the pump. Clean-burning fuel means less wear and tear on the engine and fewer visits to the mechanic.

The Honda Civic GX, the only natural gas-powered car offered in the U.S., was also recently named the world's cleanest-burning engine by the Environmental Protection Agency.

"All these benefits that we have now, we've had it forever. Now we are seeing the economic benefits and people are responding to it," says Kolodziej. He points out that in states like Utah, where NGVs are growing in popularity, drivers have been filling up at a rate of 65 cents a gallon.

Still, some don't think the potential savings are worth it when taking into account all the inconveniences a NGV owner would have to live with.

The Honda Civic GX, for instance, can only go 220 miles before having to refuel, about 130 miles less than the regular Honda Civic. Additionally, there have been gripes about the lack of trunk space because of the massive fuel tank that's required.

Also, what works in one state, won't necessarily work in another. "If you live in California, you can probably get by with a natural gas vehicle," says Clayton Cornell, managing editor of the alternative energy site Greenoptions.com. "But with most places in the U.S., there just aren't enough refueling stations."

Breaking into the mainstream, Cornell says, would require "massive investment in infrastructure."

Even so, natural gas is not an unlimited resource, a crucial factor that hurts its viability in the long-term. "If we switch toward using natural gas," says Cornell, "we will eventually be in the same situation as we are with oil."

Hydrogen Fuel Cells

A compelling argument for erecting natural gas stations is that they can help power hydrogen fuel cells, which produces clean energy by bonding hydrogen and oxygen.

Natural gas is not only the most effective way to make hydrogen, it's cost effective and environmentally friendly, says Britta Gross, General Motor's manager of hydrogen infrastructure and strategic commercialization.

GM has plans to set up 10 fueling stations in Los Angeles and New York so that volunteers can test out the company's hydrogen-powered prototype, the Equinox, through a program called Project Driveway.

"We feel good about the technology," says Gross. "If you want something that can recharge quickly and go long distances, here is an answer for it."

Hydrogen research generated much excitement in 2003 when President Bush proposed a billion-dollar initiative to further the development of what he called "one of the most encouraging, innovative technologies of our era."

Arnold Schwarzenegger followed suit the very next year and launched the California Hydrogen Highways Network project, which aims to open a hydrogen highway in the state by 2010. The governor marked the occasion by posing for snapshots as he filled up a hydrogen-powered Toyota at a local gas station near Sacramento.

However, those who don't share the same enthusiasm say that there are challenges that need to be addressed before hydrogen-powered vehicles can be considered practical. Besides lacking the infrastructure to support it, hydrogen currently costs more than gasoline.

Romm, an outspoken critic, doubts that fuel cells will be a viable option during the first half of the century, if ever.

Until the technology lives up to the promise of not just clean, but affordable fuel, he poses the question: "Why would anybody spend billions of dollars building fueling stations that might be a wasted investment?"

Hybrid Electric Plug-Ins

With the success of hybrid cars like the Toyota Prius, some experts see next-generation hybrid plug-ins as a logical successor and an important step towards ushering in a fully electric car.

Unlike hybrids currently on the market, plug-ins are rechargeable from a wall socket and can run on pure electricity for several miles before falling back on the gas engine. RechargeIt, a project launched by Google to demonstrate the potential of plug-in hybrids, converted four Priuses and two Ford Escapes into plug-ins and found that in real-world driving tests, some cars were able to achieve 100 mpg.

Although electrical power is available for about a quarter the price of gasoline, Ron Cogan, editor of Greencar.com, says that the savings will likely be offset by the expensive cost of lithium-ion batteries.

"It's one thing to pay the extra cost of a hybrid, but adding $10,000 more for batteries only makes it affordable for highly motivated people," he says.

Mark Fields, President of Ford Motor Co. in North America, recently delivered a speech at the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Conference in which he spoke of the difficulties in bringing such a technology to the mass-market. He noted, for instance, the simple fact that many people who live in apartments don't have garages and wouldn't have a way to charge their cars.

Cornell, who lives with a roommate in a two-person house, admits that it would be a "tough" situation if they both owned plug-in vehicles that needed to be charged, but doesn't see such a problem as a "deal breaker."

"If a car like that was available in an affordable price range, I'm sure we would figure something out," he says.

But as far as figuring out which technology will overthrow gas-powered cars, Cogan finds that for now "there isn't a single answer, but plenty for those who are looking to cut fuel use."

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