Car of The Future
The hybrid engine isn't it. And the hydrogen car
The race is on to design the car of the future. Every player in the industry is scrambling for the prize, and the winner will dominate the world car market for decades.
The three big contenders are the hydrogen fuel cell, the electric hybrid vehicle and the diesel. You're going to be surprised when I tell you the most likely winner.
Let's take a look at the three cars in this race...
The hydrogen fuel cell gets the most hype
Detroit put all its chips on fuel cell technology, and it's been telling us since the late 1990s that a breakthrough was just around the corner.
In 1997, German-owned DaimlerChrysler actually predicted 100,000 fuel cell engines on the road by 2005. In 2001, General Motors projected about the same timeline.
Even George Bush got into the act, declaring in his 2003 State of the Union message that "America can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."
It didn't happen and it probably won't
The short explanation for Detroit's failure is that the engineering problems were bigger than it thought. On top of that, the fuel cell engine costs 10 times as much as a conventional engine.
Worse yet, there's also the problem of building a national network of fuel stations where you can fill the tank with hydrogen. Hydrogen isn't found in nature in a usable form, and it's very expensive to produce. A national hydrogen rollout could cost $100 billion.
There's still hope that hydrogen will come through in the end, but the National Academy of Sciences believes the "hydrogen economy" is decades away.
Meanwhile, electric hybrids roar ahead
When Toyota announced a heavy investment in electric hybrids a few years back, Detroit snickered. To Detroit, it just seemed like a halfway solution on the way to the fuel cell car.
I don't need to tell you that the electric hybrid Prius is a sensation, and Detroit is now rushing to play catch-up. It'll come out with a number of hybrid models in the next few years, many of them using technology licensed from Toyota.
What's more, the electric hybrid is not just an underpowered small car. Toyota now offers a high-end SUV hybrid with better acceleration than the standard model!
So hybrids are where it's at, right? Wrong again.
The Prius has problems.
First off, the gas mileage on the Prius is not all it's cracked up to be. Consumers have noticed, and some aren't happy.
What happened is that the EPA tests vehicles under ideal conditions on a flat surface. In the real world, it looks like Prius' mileage is not so hot. Also, most of the hybrid's big mileage gains occur in stop-and-start city traffic. On an open road, the conventional engine actually gets better gas mileage.
When you look at the Prius' true mileage, there are plenty of conventional vehicles that do as well or better.
Add in the high extra cost of the hybrid engine, and some say you have to drive the car a hundred thousand miles to recoup the extra money you pay for the fancy technology.
There's a third alternative, a "sleeper" technology that's going to surprise everyone...
And the winner is...
The humble old diesel engine — the third and final competitor for car of the future.
How can that be? Diesels are loud, dirty and smelly. A pollution nightmare.
You can hear a diesel truck from a mile away, see the soot from halfway down the block and smell the exhaust as it rolls by.
Except — surprise! — those diesels you hear and smell are antiques. Thanks to new technology, diesels aren't so dirty anymore, and the gas mileage is better than ever!
Here's what happened: Europeans have to pay heavy gasoline taxes and they worry about global warming, so they invested in the diesel engine as a stopgap, just in case the hydrogen car hit a snag.
As you know, hydrogen DID hit a snag. Now the stopgap looks like the winner in the great auto race.
You see, diesel gets about 30% more miles to the gallon than gasoline, and those savings are real, in any kind of driving conditions. What's more, people who worry about global warming prefer diesel because it emits up to 20% less carbon dioxide. But wait, it gets even better...
Diesels have a huge, surprise advantage
Diesels now rival traditional gasoline engines for quiet, and European refineries have removed most of the pollutants from the fuel. The engines cost more, but the gas savings almost make up the difference.
You don't need crude oil to make diesel fuel
You can make it from coal, plant matter or even cooking oil. (No kidding! A restaurant can invest in a cooking oil converter kit that lets you fry a batch of potatoes and later reuse the oil in your delivery truck.)
In a few pages, I explain how liquefied coal is one of the big technologies of the future no matter what, whether the diesel engine wins or not. But if diesel wins the auto race, coal will be the biggest thing since folks traded in their horses for cars. King Crude may be dead, once and for all.
How bad does the world need these new technologies? REAL bad.
In India they make fuel from cow dung
Every year and, indeed, every month the world will grow more desperate for the alternative fuels and technologies I'm talking about.
India imports more than 75% of its crude oil. It's so desperate for alternatives, it recently promoted cow dung as an important energy source. A new use for sacred cows!
The problem is Asians these days are buying cars like... well, like Americans.
The Chinese would have to buy 650 million vehicles to reach American levels of car ownership. That's not likely. But a fraction of that figure will create an oil and pollution crisis big enough to finish us off.
In the vast markets of India and China, a vehicle that runs without crude oil will be irresistible. But there's still more to the diesel story...
A hybrid diesel engine is the next step
A combination of hybrid and diesel technology will take the fuel savings up a notch. Make that two notches. And it will happen soon.
An MIT study predicts the diesel hybrid could outperform a hydrogen fuel cell engine on both gasoline mileage and carbon emissions — within 10 years.
In other words, the hydrogen fuel cell car may never get to market. It's dead in the cradle thanks to breakthroughs elsewhere.
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