And Mercedes-Benz’s parent DaimlerChrysler reckons that the fuel cell could provide the ideal solution.
It aims to have a Mercedes car equipped with hydrogen-powered fuel cells on sale within the next five years and is investing over £860m in a development programme. A prototype Mercedes A Class equipped with fuel cells, and known as the NECAR (New Electric Car) 4 has already been unveiled in the US.
The liquid hydrogen it needs is stored in a large vacuum flask. The fuel cell employs a platinum-coated membrane to separate the hydrogen into protons and electrons, and combines them with oxygen taken from the surrounding air. This produces an electrical charge, and it is electricity that provides the power to turn the wheels.
NECAR 4 offers 40% more power than an equivalent battery-driven electric car, and has three times the range, says DaimlerChrysler. It can travel for almost 280 miles before it needs refuelling, has a top speed of 90mph, and produces no exhaust emissions at all – just the thing for the environmentally conscious fleet manager.
Ford too has looked at what fuel cells have to offer. It exhibited the FC5, a five-seater, four-door hatchback, at the 1999 Frankfurt Motor Show, but its approach is slightly different to DaimlerChrysler’s.
You fill the FC5, not with hydrogen, but with methanol, from which hydrogen is then extracted. Methanol is liquid under normal conditions, so refuelling is just like filling up with petrol. ‘Adding methanol capacity to existing fuel stations is straightforward, so the necessary infrastructure could be developed swiftly and economically,’ says a Ford spokesman.
‘What’s more, while methanol can be derived from natural gas, it can also be produced from plant material such as seaweed, wood pulp and organic waste. These are renewable resources, helping to preserve finite fossil-fuel stocks.’
Methanol does generate some emissions, but virtually no particulates, carbon monoxide, or oxides of nitrogen, all of which contribute to big city smog. It is comparable in cost to petrol and diesel. Fuel cells do not come cheap, but Ford says prices will fall as economies of scale come into play.
The fuel cell is not the only means of reducing airborne pollution, however, and other options are closer to volume production. Toyota’s petrol-electric Prius was on display at last autumn’s London Motor Show, and will go on sale in Europe next summer. It’s already available in Japan.
It looks like a conventional family saloon, but it can run on either its 1.5 litre petrol engine, its electric motor, or a combination of both.
The main function of the engine is to drive the wheels. Any excess output is used to recharge the nickel-metal hydride batteries, which never require plugging into an external power source.
The batteries supply extra power through the electric motor when the driver wants to climb a steep hill or overtake. At low speeds, when Prius is travelling downhill or is stationary, the engine cuts out, and the electric motor takes over.
It is used when Prius pulls away from rest too, the engine only cutting in as the car picks up speed. Whenever battery power is relied on, Prius does not pollute the atmosphere and runs more quietly.
Honda has advanced along similar lines with its Insight coupe, due in dealer showrooms in Britain next April.
Toyota has also been busy developing pure electric vehicles. It has come up with a prototype two-seater compact commuter car called the e.com, with a lightweight battery pack, a 25bhp electric motor, a maximum speed of 62mph and a range of around 62 miles.
It is going to be using e.coms in an experimental community car-sharing programme in Japan later in 2000. If the experiment is a success, the vehicle could go into series production. E.com is quiet and does not pump out exhaust fumes. But if you have to plug a car into the electricity mains to charge its batteries, you cannot help but reflect that power stations cause pollution too – and some of them are nuclear.
Several motor manufacturers already have cars on sale which will run either on petrol or environmentally-friendly liquified petroleum gas.
Some have come up with engines which will run on clean, green, compressed natural gas, while BMW has developed cars powered by liquified natural gas.
At the same time the motor industry is looking to refine existing technology, and some pundits believe that conventional petrol and diesel engines can be made sufficiently clean to make pursuing any additional benefits afforded by alternative fuels unattractive – good news for fleet managers and accountants concerned about the viability refuelling points.
Due to go on sale next June, and calculated to appeal to senior managers, Peugeot’s new, large 607 executive car will be on offer with both petrol and high-pressure direct-injection diesel engines. The latter will be equipped with a highly-sophisticated filter system which stops any carbon particles left over from the combustion process entering the atmosphere.
The 607 is a prime example of the way in which features reckoned to be light years away not so long ago are now being incorporated into vehicles.
The lucky owner of a 607 will be able to benefit from electronic sensors which will tell him if he has a puncture, and a heat-deflecting windscreen which will help stop him frying if he is stuck on the M25 in blazing hot weather. Plenty of features to tempt the sales fleet.
The headlights switch on automatically at dusk and when it’s raining, and the windscreen wipers operate automatically in wet weather. A sensor in the rear bumper will warn the driver if there is an obstacle when reversing.
All useful stuff – but whatever happened to driving pleasure? That shouldn’t be a problem with 607. It has a suspension system with nine settings and an automatic gearbox with different settings for fast driving, and for proceeding more carefully over snow and ice. It can also be used as a manual box.
The top-of-the-range three-litre V6 petrol engine has 210bhp on tap, which should be more than enough power for sustained high-speed motorway cruising and for overtaking slower traffic.
A spell behind the wheel of Concept D is unlikely to be a hardship either.
A design study which appeared on Volkswagen’s stand at the last Frankfurt Show, Concept D is VW’s interpretation of what a luxury saloon of the future will contain.
A vehicle based on it is due for production soon, and will be VW’s attempt to take on Mercedes-Benz’s mighty S Class. A four-door coupe, Concept D is diesel rather than petrol powered, but the turbocharged 5.0-litre V10 engine pumps out a healthy 313bhp. It’s equipped with four-wheel-drive, an automatic gearbox, and, like 607, boasts a host of clever features. They include door handles which are flush with the sides of the car, but which pop up when somebody’s hand comes within a few centimetres of them thanks to a heat sensor. A closed circuit TV camera allows whoever is at the wheel to see precisely where they are going when they are reversing.
Peugeot’s 607 may have a windscreen which reflects heat, but Renault’s Avantime has a strengthened, heat-reflective, all-glass roof with a large front section which can be opened. Taking its styling cues from some of the luxury models Renault built in the 1930s, Avantime appeared as a concept car at the 1999 Geneva Motor Show, swiftly followed by a production version which made its debut at Frankfurt. It goes on sale in Britain at the end of 2000, and its 210bhp V6 3.0-litre petrol engine is married to a six-speed gearbox. The concept-car version of Avantime was started, not with an ignition key, but with an intelligent card which is slotted into the dashboard. The same card automatically unlocks the doors and disarms the engine immobiliser when the driver walks towards his vehicle with it in his pocket. The smart card will not feature on the Avantime which will appear in the showrooms, but will appear on certain other Renault models from 2001 onwards. As well as a built-in navigation system, Avantime will also boast six airbags, including two ‘curtain’ airbags running the length of each side of the cabin. The move to additional airbags to protect the car’s occupants in a major smash is a key safety trend in new cars.
Mercedes is busy working on high-speed electronics which will result in faster-reacting brakes and an intelligent cruise control system incorporating radar. You set the speed you wish to travel at and the car will automatically brake if, for example, a driver pulls out in front of you.
Manufacturers are experimenting with alternative materials as well as alternative fuels. Audi, for example, has developed cars with corrosion-free, all-aluminium bodies in the shape of the A2 and A8.
Another concept vehicle seen at Frankfurt was BMW’s Z9, which has carbon-fibre bodywork. It is light, strong and does not rust. It is powered by a diesel. Not just any old diesel, however. It’s a V8 turbo pumping out 245bhp, and is already in service in BMW’s 740d, which was launched in 1998. Pulling up at the diesel pumps along with the plumber in his transit van won’t do a lot for the sales manager’s street cred, however. So maybe it’s just as well that BMW has no plans to put Z9 into production. It looks as if the latest crop of auto innovations will provide finance departments and sales managers with plenty to discuss.
FLEET MANAGERS HOLD BACK FROM THE FUTURE Motoring’s future may lie with alternative fuels, but manufacturers will have to convince sceptical car fleet operators first. A recent survey carried out by Godfrey Davis, the Bank of Scotland’s vehicle leasing and fleet management division, reveals that they are highly reluctant to acquire such vehicles.
Despite the fact that a government grant is available which covers up to 75% of the price difference between a petrol car, and one which will also run on liquified petroleum gas (lpg) or compressed natural gas (cng), operators say there are insufficient tax incentives to persuade them to switch.
They are also concerned about how much cars running on lpg or cng will be worth second-hand.
A third factor is driver resistance, the survey shows – sales reps would rather stick with petrol – while another consideration is the shortage of refuelling sites. Too few service stations boast lpg or cng pumps.