Two hundred years ago, Swiss engineer François Isaac de Rivaz invented an internal combustion engine that used a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen as fuel. But the car he designed to go with it was a failure. The first electric cars were invented some 25 years later.
At the turn of 20th century, electric cars were more popular than gasoline-powered models for many of the same reasons consumers are taking a second look at electric cars today — they did not emit noxious fumes, were quiet, smoother, and easier to drive. So, why did the more-polluting gasoline-powered cars take over the market? Several factors came into play.
Henry Ford, Good Roads, Cheap Gas “I will build a car for the great multitude,” declared Henry Ford in 1903. And so he did. The Model T, with an internal combustion engine that ran on gasoline, was released in 1908, selling for $950. During its 19 years in production, its price tag would fall as low as $280. No other car could compete — let alone electric cars, which, when at their peak in 1912, sold on average for $1,950. The writing was on the wall. Electric cars also lost out because of their limited range. After World War I, nations started to build highways and roads to connect their towns. Car owners soon wanted to venture out farther than the electric cars could take them.
Clean Energy Today’s internal combustion engines can be readily converted to run on a variety of fuels. However, the combination of hydrogen fuel cells used to power cars with electric motors are two to three times more efficient than gas-fueled internal combustion engines. Moreover, they have zero emissions and, because they have few moving parts, are quiet and vibration-free.
Hydrogen is one of the most plentiful elements in the universe. It can be extracted from natural gas, coal, crude oil, etc., but water is the only pollution-free source of hydrogen. A number of companies founded after the oil crisis of the ’70s based their business models on the hydrogen fuel cell as a clean source of renewable energy. In the ’90s, a research team at Ballard Power Systems in Canada made a major breakthrough when it discovered a way to increase the power density of hydrogen, upping the average figure from 200 watts per liter to some 1,500.
Fill Her Up:Compressed Hydrogen, Please Refueling currently remains a problem, unless you live in California, which plans to build 150 to 200 hydrogen-fueling stations by 2010. A number of car companies aim to tackle the problem by providing consumers with home hydrogen refueling units. GM, whose Vice Chairman, Bob Lutz, believes fuel cells could create a new golden age for the company, plans to release a home model, which would make hydrogen either from electricity or sunlight, in 2011. This year, GM aims to place 100 hydrogen fuel cell Chevrolet Equinox SUVs for trial with consumers.
Are We There Yet with the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology? Not quite. Work is ongoing to develop less costly fuel cells that meet or beat performance needs, but we will get there. Meanwhile, flexible and alternative fuels are new options for de-stressing the environment while stretching the fuel dollar.
The number of hybrid vehicles on the market is increasing dramatically. Available hybrids for our industry now include the Mercury Mariner SUV (showing at the LCT EASTERN CONFERENCE this month) and the Ford Escape. A bonus, according to Entrepreneur magazine’s Commercial 2007 Vehicle Report, is these vehicles achieve their best fuel economy in the city, making them good choices for urban fleets. Meanwhile, tax breaks on Toyota Prius hybrids are slowing down. The IRS Hybrid Credits, ranging from $250 to $3,150, decrease by 50% after a manufacturer has sold 60,000 hybrids, and eventually disappear altogether.
The good news — several hybrids, including the Mercury Mariner and Ford Escape, will still qualify in 2008. Keep in mind that if vehicles are leased, the leasing company may claim the credit.