What you'll be driving in a green tomorrow
An early glimpse of the 21st century automobile came not from Henry Ford or a formula one pit lane, but from the pen of Jules Verne. “The energy of tomorrow is water broken down into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity,” he wrote in The Mysterious Island in 1874. “These elements will secure the earth’s power supply for an indefinite period.”
After more than a century of the internal combustion engine, car manufacturers are now ploughing billions into developing alternative fuel technologies to reduce depen dence on finite oil supplies.
The most promising contenders borrow from Verne’s vision, using hydrogen fuel cells—a technology discovered in 1839—to turn the wheels and leave nothing but water vapour in their wake.
The need to rethink the car is long overdue. America’s 210-million vehicles spew almost 1,5-billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year and, according to a US environmental protection agency report, the latest models average little more than 20 miles to the gallon—the worst showing since 1980. Even George Bush, diehard Texan oilman, acknowledges that identifying workable alternative fuel sources has become imperative.
Now, with everybody from American “sports utility vehicle” nuts to Mexico City cab drivers likely to be bowling along in eco-friendly vehicles by 2010, a bewildering array of technologies is emerging, each claiming to revolutionise the automobile. Here, we take a look at seven of the best, from vehicles already moving into production to space-age prototypes that may never make it into the showroom, but offer a blueprint of how cars may look and move over the next two decades.
Certified for everyday use in the US
Appearance: An ordinary city runabout. Two doors, four seats.
The technology: Despite its ordinary looks, the FCX is the first hydrogen fuel cell car to be “government-certified” for everyday use in America: it’s the first real-world green car. Well, almost.
You can’t buy one yet, but you can now rent one in Tokyo and, probably, by the end of the year in Los Angeles.
As with other hydrogen fuel cars (such as the Toyota FCHV-4, being road tested in Japan and California) the car uses tanks of compressed hydrogen as fuel.
When the hydrogen is pumped into the fuel cell, it heats up and each hydrogen molecule is split into two positive ions and two electrons. The electrons are directed into a circuit to drive the engine while the ions pass through a membrane where they combine with oxygen ions produced from outside air. When the ions combine, they form water vapour, the car’s only exhaust fume.
Fuel cell technology has been around since the 19th century but companies have struggled to make it efficient, and although cars like the FCX are in use, it remains to be seen whether the technology is commercially competitive.
The first problem is that hydrogen is obtained by using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, or by stripping the carbon from hydrocarbons such as natural gas, and this takes energy. Ideally this energy would come from renewable resources, but in most regions, that’s not an option right now. So it’s less green, and more costly—compressed hydrogen costs the equivalent of $3 a gallon.
Another hitch with hydrogen is the lack of pumps to fill cars up at.
The figures At Â£4 300 a month to rent in Japan, the car has a top speed of about 149kph and will go about 350 kilometres before needing a top up. It is officially a “zero emission” car.
Who’ll drive them? If they can get the price right and build enough filling stations, it’ll be the perfect car for environmentally aware urbanites. Right now it’s a good option for environmental consultancies and other green businesses.
No steering wheel, no pedals—a giant skateboard
Appearance: Conventional enough from the outside: silver body, four wheels, windows, etc. Massive windscreen gives superb visibility. That is where similarity to conventional cars ends.
The technology The Hy-Wire does away with the two basic components of traditional car technology. There is no engine under the bonnet and no hydraulic or mechanical linkages beneath the chassis. Everything that propels and steers the car is housed inside the 28cm-thick aluminium chassis at the base of the vehicle—known as the skateboard. Power comes from a hydrogen fuel-cell stack made of 200 individual cells, capable of delivering a top speed of about 160kph. The hydrogen gas fuel is stored in three cylindrical tanks, made of a carbon composite.
There is no steering wheel and no pedals. Instead, a “by-wire” steering grip is linked to a central computer housed in the skateboard.
To accelerate, just twist the grip and to brake, squeeze it. Steering is achieved by pushing the grip up or down. The system’s electronics are produced by Swedish aeronautics company SKF.
The figures General Motors has already spent about Â£10-million developing the Hy-Wire, using over 500 specialists. The company has more than 30 patents on the technology. The biggest weakness is a range of only 120km before it needs more gas.
Who’ll drive them? GM says it will be producing about 100 000 Hy-Wires by 2010 and everyone from white van men to boy racers will want one. By putting all the technology inside the skateboard, GM has come up with a car whose shape can be changed to suit the owner’s needs. The passenger compartment can be replaced with, for example, a van or sports car shell.
Super-sleek, super-light, heavy price tag
Appearance: Cross between a luxury sports car and a super-sleek family hatchback. Looks best in silver.
The technology: A fortnight ago, Hypercar won the environment category in the World Technology Awards. While most future-car manufacturers focused on developing fuel cells powerful enough to drive existing cars, Colorado-based Hypercar has done it the other way round, redesigning the automobile from the tyres up to produce a vehicle that is light and efficient enough to be driven by fuel cells.
The result is the Revolution, which is eight times more efficient than standard cars. At the heart of the concept is the body, which is made from a composite of carbon fibres set in a plastic matrix. Made from 14 main components, the car body is much simpler to assemble than those made by more traditional methods. Typical stamped and welded metal car bodies are made up of about 250 pieces, which increases both the cost and complexity of manufacture.
Although the vehicle weighs only 907kg, the body materials, pound for pound, are five times stronger than steel, improving safety.
Other weight-reducing innovations include special low-rolling resistance tyres, developed with Michelin. These cut down on friction, which accounts for a third of a car’s fuel energy, and are also designed so that they can be driven for another 160km in the event of a blowout. The absence of a standard internal combustion engine, starter, alternator, clutch and transmission reduce the bulk even more. As a result, the Hypercar requires a fuel cell that is a third of the weight of those being developed by traditional car manufacturers.
The figures:The Revolution is capable of the equivalent of 99 miles per gallon of petrol with a range of 528km on about 3,5kg of hydrogen. It can reach about 99km per hour from a standing start in 8,3 seconds.
Who’ll drive them? Environmentally-friendly Premiership footballers, Hampstead mums and Prince Charles. When the Revolution goes into production in 2005, it will have a price tag similar to luxury four-wheel drives such as the BMW X5 and the Mercedes M320.
Complete with go-greener stickers on the side
Appearance: A standard Mercedes A-Class with unsubtle stickers up the side to make sure other road users realise how technologically advanced you are.
The technology: The 60 F-Cell cars unveiled last October represent the first fleet of vehicles powered by pure hydrogen to be manufactured in near-standard production conditions.
The cars run on compressed hydrogen which is funnelled into a stack of 440 fuel cells housed beneath the car’s floor. DaimlerChrysler claim it is completely emission-free and extremely quiet.
The figures: Daimler-Chrysler is spending billions developing alternative fuel technologies and this is the leading candidate. The F-Cell has a range of about 150 kilometres (before it needs a new tank of hydrogen) and a top speed of about 160 kph. Its acceleration from 0 to 100kmh is unspectacular, at 16 seconds. Like most hydrogen cars, its fuel consumption puts petrol and diesel cars to shame, at the equivalent of more than 100km per gallon.
Who’ll drive them? Consumers in the United States, Europe, Singapore and Japan are already road testing F-Cells, while UPS has taken delivery of one to test as a distribution vehicle.
Fuelled by borax, a naturally occurring mineral
Appearance: Same as Chrysler’s swish Grand Voyager people carrier, used to move the Blair brood around the country.
The technology: The Natrium takes the phrase “clean appearance technology” literally. Power is by a hydrogen fuel cell but the source of the hydrogen makes this vehicle special: sodium borohydride, which is basically borax laundry detergent combined with hydrogen.
According to Chrysler, sodium borohydride is widely available in the US, is non-toxic, non-flammable and, best of all, can be recycled. That raises the possibility of an endless fuel supply.
Hydrogen gas is extracted from hydrated sodium borohydride pellets. The only residue is recyclable borax. Refuelling would entail simply keeping about two pounds of pellets and two gallons of water in the vehicle.
Performance on the road is impressive, with a range of about 480km, roughly equivalent to a petrol engine. Natrium is heavier than its conventional cousin, but Chrysler says it can shave weight if it goes into production.
The figures: Top speed of 128kph and the equivalent to 30mpg of petrol.
Who’ll drive them? Eco-conscious, squeaky clean heads of government.
Solar car powered by cast-offs from the Hubble space telescope
Appearance: A waist-high Jetsonian powerboat perched on three wheels.
The technology: Built by eight students from the universities of Delft and Amsterdam, the reigning champion of the World Solar Challenge, a 3 010km race from Darwin to Adelaide through the Australian desert, is among the most advanced vehicles on earth. The outer shell is made of space-age plastics while the main body is carbon fibre, reinforced with Kevlar. Power comes from the 36 solar cells that coat the shell, some of which have been in space as part of the Hubble telescope, provided by the European Space Agency. The vehicle also carries maximum power point trackers, similar to those developed for ESA’s comet-chasing Rosetta mission, which guarantee an optimal balance between power from the battery and power from the cells.
The figures Nuna has a theoretical top speed of more than 160kph—although in the race, which it completed in a record four days, its top speed was just over 100kmh.
Who’ll drive them? Nobody but Dutch students and astronauts. Nuna will never become a production car but its design principles and technologies will influence future vehicles.
Runs on air alone
Appearance: A squished Nissan Micra, more something Noddy would drive than a solution to an urban transport crisis.
The technology: Even more tantalising than hydrogen-powered cars is the one that can run on the ultimate renewable fuel: air. The e.Volution, from Zero Pollution Motors in France, is likely to be the first air-powered car in mass production.
The e.Volution has a unique two-cylinder compressed air engine, designed by former formula one engineer Guy Negre. The air, compressed then stored in tanks beneath the chassis, is fed through an injector to a small chamber in the engine where it expands, pushing down on the pistons to move the crankshaft.
According to ZPM, the car, which weighs only 700kg, will be able to run for up to 10 hours at an average speed of 88kph before it needs recharging. But a question mark over its green credentials is that it requires electricity—from fossil fuel currently—to compress the air.
The figures: The e.Volution will be able to travel 193km on about 20p worth of compressed air. Technical issues have delayed the production date, but it will retail for about Â£6 000 (about R74 000).
Who’ll drive them? Mexico City taxi drivers, for starters. The Mexican government has signed a deal to buy a fleet to replace petrol and diesel taxis. - Guardian Unlimited Â