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SPECIAL REPORT: VEHICLES FOR THE NEXT DECADE | Motor
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Despite Progress, Obstacles Still Remain for Fuel-Cell Vehicles

April 29, 1999|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — DaimlerChrysler and Ford Motor Co. are on record saying they will begin mass-producing fuel-cell vehicles by 2004.

It is a bold statement that many wary auto experts regard as public relations hype designed to project a "green" image and to impress regulators rather than a realistic and achievable target.

I count myself among the skeptics. But after having driven fuel-cell test cars made by both companies, I must admit that modest commercialization of fuel-cell vehicles in five years is not out of the question.

Fuel cells, which create electricity through the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, are considered the favorite zero-emission technology to supplant the less-efficient, polluting internal combustion engine in coming decades. Under regulatory pressure, the world's auto makers are racing to be first to market with fuel cells. DaimlerChrysler and Ford are considered the front-runners, but they are facing formidable competition.

Just last week, General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp., the world's No. 1 and No. 3 auto makers, respectively, announced a wide-ranging partnership to research, develop and possibly produce fuel cells and other advanced-technology vehicles.

At the same time, Ford, DaimlerChrysler and their fuel-cell partner, Ballard Power Systems of Canada, joined April 20 with three oil companies and the state of California to demonstrate the viability of fuel-cell vehicles. The four-year program will involve field-testing a variety of fuel-cell passenger vehicles and buses beginning in 2000.

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To kick off the program, Ford and DaimlerChrysler last week put their hydrogen-fueled test mules in the hands of journalists for short drives around a city park in Sacramento. The drives showed the tremendous progress fuel cells have made in just a few years, but also served as a reminder of the significant obstacles--involving cost, size and fuel--that must be surmounted.

The Ford P2000 fuel-cell vehicle is a traditional-looking five-passenger sedan based on a stretched Contour. It weighs less than a Taurus mid-size sedan but offers the same amount of interior space. Ford says the P2000 achieves the equivalent of 100 horsepower and can go from zero to 60 mph in 12 seconds.

DaimlerChrysler's Necar 4, the fourth generation in its New Electric Car series, is based on a Mercedes-Benz A-Class compact sedan. The four-passenger vehicle, which is sold only in Europe, has a unique design that places the fuel-cell system in a 6-inch space under the car's floor.

The company says the snub-nosed Necar 4 has the equivalent of 75 horsepower and can reach 35 mph in 6.5 seconds; it is capable of reaching a top speed of 90 mph.

On the road, both vehicles performed at acceptable levels. In terms of handling and performance, there is little to distinguish them from traditional gas-powered vehicles. At start-up they were a bit sluggish, but once rolling they respond with pep. They both appeared to handle well in turns, at least at the low speeds that were attained on the test drives.

Of course, neither vehicle is ready for prime-time. Both are noisy, a result of whiny air compressors that force oxygen into the fuel cell under pressure. But the racket in the Necar 4 is markedly lower now than during a test-drive in March, the result of insulating the compressor and nearby components. Ford says it too can reduce the noise in its P2000.

The P2000 is lighter than the Necar 4. The Ford vehicle, which makes extensive use of aluminum, composites and other lightweight materials, weighs about 3,000 pounds, about the same as a conventional mid-size sedan. But its fuel-cell system adds about 1,000 pounds to its curb weight.

Despite being a smaller car, the Necar 4 is heavy at 3,800 pounds, or 660 pounds more than a conventional A-Class. The added weight can be felt during start-up and braking.

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Both vehicles use hydrogen fuel. Although this eliminates harmful emissions, the choice presents handling and design challenges.

The Necar 4 uses liquid hydrogen, which must be kept at minus 423 degrees Fahrenheit. The liquid fuel gives the car a 280-mile range, but presents obvious safety issues because handling such fuel is dangerous. The storage tank also takes up a portion of the vehicle's trunk.

The trunk in the P2000 is nearly nonexistent. The vehicle runs on compressed hydrogen, requiring two bulky storage tanks. But using gaseous hydrogen also limits the range to just 100 miles.

Both auto makers expect the first fuel-cell vehicles offered for sale to use methanol, a liquid fuel that can be processed to yield hydrogen. But such vehicles will need expensive and bulky on-board processors. Methanol fuel-cell vehicles are likely to be demonstrated beginning in 2002 in California.

Auto executives are quick to point out that fuel-cell vehicles can succeed only if they can match or exceed today's vehicles in comfort, convenience and cost.

Given that fuel-cell systems now cost 10 times more than traditional engines, that no fuel infrastructure exists for hydrogen or methanol and that the systems are still too big and heavy, they are by no means assured of public acceptance.

Still, their rapid development is remarkable. And unlike battery-powered electric vehicles, which have failed to catch on because advanced storage units can't deliver adequate range, there aren't significant technological problems standing in the way of fuel cells.

Motor City reports industry news and trends. Donald W. Nauss, The Times' Detroit bureau chief, can be reached at don.nauss@latimes.com.

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