The car of the future is here! OK, it drives with all the foot-to-the-floor excitement of a souped-up golf cart. But let’s be patient. The future can’t be rushed. After all, we didn't go from the Model T to the Mustang overnight.
Some day, for certain, there will be no more oil left in Earth. That might be 40 years from now, if you listen to the Chicken Littles, or 250 years from now, if you buy the spiel of oil industry flacks.
No matter. Eventually, we will have to invent a new way to generate the power needed to run our computers and to shuttle little Connor and Caitlyn to soccer practice.
And General Motors Corp. is betting more than a billion dollars in research and development money that hydrogen fuel cells will be the prime energy source of the future.
Hydrogen fuel cells are electromechanical devices with no moving parts that convert chemical energy into electrical energy, emitting only water vapor and heat.
If it sounds confusing, a GM lab-coat crew shows a movie starring Bill Nye the Science Guy to explain it to a group of technological idiots — journalists — as part of their ongoing “Technology Tour.”
The fuel cells combine liquid hydrogen and oxygen into water, and capture the resulting byproduct, an electrical current providing enough power to drive an automobile.
For the past year, GM has showcased the HydroGen1, a prototype minivan using this new technology.
The world’s largest automaker’s long-term plan is to bypass “hybrid” technology, a combination of gas and electric power seen in models like the current Toyota Prius.
Instead, GM wants to be on the vanguard of what executives dub with Master-of-the-Universe confidence, the coming “hydrogen economy.”
Forgive me a moment of cynicism. Just a few years ago, we were told by countless dot-com geniuses that the expansion of the Internet ushered in a New Economy that changed all the rules. Nay, changed the way people live, work and think forever.
Then creaky, dusty Old Economy came lumbering around the bend, laughing at the snake-oil salesmen masquerading as titans of business, crushing every 401(k) plan in its path.
Skepticism is certainly warranted when anyone, especially a corporate spokesman, makes bold statements about the future, such as how fuel cells “will change how we live our everyday lives.”
But when you listen to the true believers at GM, you start to get sucked in.
Yeah! A cheap and plentiful energy supply! No emissions! No oil changes!
Clear skies from Los Angeles to New Delhi!
Then you get behind the wheel of the hydrogen fuel cell prototype — and the bubble bursts. Hit the pedal and you get a choked buzzing sound and an immediate, steady takeoff, rather than the familiar invigorating jump-start and vroooom! I was tempted to pull over and clip some old baseball cards in the spokes with a clothespin.
That said, GM's fuel cell cars are engineering marvels. And perhaps fuel cell technology really will change the way people live.
But it won’t change the way we drive, at least not very soon.
The GM prototype goes only 70 miles per fill-up of hydrogen, which doesn’t fit into the hurry-up-and-go-far U.S. lifestyle (although Honda brags of a hydrogen car that can go 300 miles).
While the HydroGen1 reportedly peaks at 93 mph, convincing an SUV-driving family of four to trade what they know and trust for this vehicle will be quite a challenge.
The auto industry has learned that Americans will not be forced into vehicles they don’t want to drive. Nonetheless, California recently passed a law requiring manufacturers to offer as many as 100,000 electric and low-pollution vehicles annually beginning Oct. 1, 2003. While well-intentioned, this heavy-handed government attempt to remake the look of U.S. roads by fiat is bound to fail.
General Motors, for one, has gone to court to block the new law — and has a pretty good case. Who is government to tell automakers what to produce? Why should companies be forced to build thousands of cars no one will buy?
Ford Motor Co. poured $100 million into its “Think” electric vehicles, pushed to do so more by harassment from government and environmentalist groups than by the free market.
Not surprisingly, Ford announced in September that it was pulling the plug on Think. Customers were put off by the car’s thimble-small size, limited range and convoluted recharging process.
To prevent fuel cell-powered cars from becoming the next big flop, the government should stop insisting that it get behind the wheel and just go along for the ride. A little backseat driving in the form of helping to advance the technology when asked wouldn’t hurt.
When automakers produce the ultimate clean-burning dream car of the future, Americans will let them know. They’ll buy it.