Saturday, April 28, 2012

Predicting the Future...or Trying my Best

Ever since the dawn of the automobile, people have been trying to predict what's next for it with varying levels of success. At the beginning, there were those who claimed it was a fad in which only the wealthy could indulge themselves and that it would pass within ten years. During the 1950s and 60s, it was believed that by 2000, we would have flying cars that sounded and looked like George Jetson's nameless family flier. And just like in the past, people are continuing to predict what's next for the automobile but it's only with the passage of time that we will know if they are right or wrong.

Today, the concern is not whether cars will be around or if they will fly but rather, how they will be powered. As the last decade has progressed, gasoline prices have been a veritable roller coaster that the general public has been riding blindfolded, undulating up and down, sometimes with frightening drops and spikes. One such example took us from $4.11 in July of 2008 to an average of $1.61 by the end of that same year and the lowest since 2003. There is no doubt that despite the price at the pump, the internal combustion engine is here to stay for several more generations, if not longer. Rather than giving you a new car review, I'm going to use this space to provide insight into the future of the automobile as I see it.


From the beginning, there were electric cars and gasoline powered cars and for awhile, the electric cars were the more popular choice. The speeds of both were generally low, mechanical reliability was always iffy and journeys were often very short. Electric cars were more popular because they were quiet, didn't require risking breaking your arm to start, and in some cases, they were peppier than their gas-powered components. Due to their ease of use, they were also marketed as a car for women and gained a popular following as a result. But as progress has a way of doing, the technology caught up with the gasoline engine and combined with cheap oil, left the electric car by the wayside by the early 1920s.

Apart from a few small experiments, the electric car floundered in the annals of history until the oil crises of the 1970s and early 80s renewed interest in them and the energy independence they symbolized. It wasn't until the mid-1990s that a small number of electric cars were available to buyers under lease only and usually in Southern California. Among the most popular and notorious of these vehicles was the GM EV1 although EVs were also offered by Honda, Ford, and Toyota. While the owners who leased these highly experimental vehicles were enamored with them, the drawbacks remained. Even with careful driving, the expected range of an EV1 or a Honda EV Plus was little more than a hundred miles. Use of the lights, air conditioning or wipers reduced this range to 75 miles or less and it would take well over twelve hours to fully recharge the dated lead-acid batteries from a fully depleted state. Additionally, with gasoline again blissfully cheap at a dollar and change or slightly less for much of the late 90s, there was little incentive to continue the program on what had been from the start, an experiment. Once their leases were up, Honda and GM returned checks from lessees hoping to buy their vehicles outright, repossessed the cars and eventually crushed and shredded them. Conspiracy theorists will claim it was a blatant attack by Big Oil on a power system that was about to release their grip on the world but the truth is that the cars were a baby step in what was to come.

Currently, if you want a pure electric battery-powered car, your options are the relatively handsome Nissan Leaf and the absolutely hideous Mitsubishi i-MiEV. Like their 90s predecessors, these two vehicles are limited by their range (less than 100 miles) and a lack of charging stations although that is slowly changing. If you are willing to wait, electric offerings are due out soon in the form of a Chevrolet Spark, Ford Focus, Honda Fit, Tesla Model S, and in a life-after-death appearance, the Toyota RAV4 EV. It seems that auto makers have mostly decided to eschew the idea of all-new electric-only models in favor of offering electric versions of existing and highly successful gas-powered vehicles like the Fit and the Focus.

Obviously these cars are not for everybody but the 'Zero Emissions' badge they proudly wear and their owners love to show off isn't telling the whole story. You see, there are only a small number of states where using an electric car is environmentally friendlier than internal combustion and in an article you can read here, you'll see that in many Midwest and southern states, charging a Leaf or an i-MiEV draws more pollutants than driving a standard internal combustion engine vehicle the same distance. In fact, an all-gasoline Hyundai Accent is less polluting than a Leaf in twelve states and less than a Chevrolet Volt (which is only partially electric) in eleven states. If you live in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Vermont or New Hampshire, the power provided through that plug is in fact cleaner than driving a standard car. Residents of California, Arizona, South Dakota, Illinois, South Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Maine can take heart in knowing it's clean but may not actually be the cleanest choice available. And if you didn't see your state listed here, you won't be helping anything except your ego by buying an EV. In fact, chances are good it will pollute more than the car currently sitting in your garage. But don't be fooled. Regardless of where you hang your hat, it still isn't completely zero emissions and unless you charge it yourself via windmill, it never will be be.

Do I hate electric cars? No. Absolutely not. I think they are really quite cool and the technology is remarkable but they are by their very design, fatally flawed. The fact that they are powered by batteries and their range can be grossly affected by light breezes or the fact you bought a pack of Skittles means they don't work for everyone. For those who don't drive much and do mostly short trips near home, the Leaf is a dream come true. But for those love spontaneous road trips or just love to drive, it simply doesn't jive. I for one love the fact I can get into my car and drive where I want knowing that when the gas gauge blinks 'E', I can pull into any station, fill my tank and continue exploring until that light comes back on. That is the freedom of the car itself. Also, when one takes into account the amount of natural resources and processes it takes to make a single battery pack that may only be good for a few years, you just can't help but wonder if it's really worth the effort.


I'm not going to lie. There's a special place in my heart that I reserve for hydrogen power and a big corner of that place I keep for the Honda FCX Clarity in particular. In terms of environmentally friendly cars, it's the only one on the market right now that actually gets me excited and you can quote me when I say it's the only one I'd buy. That is, however, if I lived in Southern California but as I currently reside in rainy Portland, the Clarity and its hydrogen filling stations are well beyond my reach but that doesn't stop me from believing it is the coolest car in production right now and may very well represent the future of the car as we know it.

Despite its current geographical limitations, the FCX Clarity is the only non-hybrid eco-friendly car that has its roots planted firmly in the real world. It's the type of car that wouldn't mind if you and your friends head out for dinner after work and then decide to take a last-minute trip to the beach. While it is an electric car like the Leaf, it has no battery pack and it never needs to be plugged in. Instead, it has its own power station on board that takes compressed hydrogen in a specialized fuel tank, mixes it with the outside air and converts it into electricity that is in turn used to power electric motors that turn the wheels. And because when hydrogen and oxygen are combined, all you get in terms of exhaust is water and from what I've heard, it's clean enough to drink. Another advantage of the Clarity and hydrogen power in general is driving range. While the Leaf may get you some 75 to 100 miles between naps at a charging station, the Clarity can do nearly 300 and unlike battery-powered cars, you don't need to clear your calendar when it comes time to fill it up. The whole refueling process takes two to three minutes, about the same as it might take you to fill up your Civic with 87 octane.

Even with my deep affections for this little Honda, I will readily admit that it's far from perfect. In the same way that battery-powered electrics have to consider where their socket power is being generated, the Clarity has a far larger problem to contend with. Hydrogen is incredibly abundant all over our universe but the only problem is, it never travels alone and is always hitching a ride with other molecules like oxygen and the process to isolate and contain it is, sadly, quite energy-inefficient. And even if the separation of hydrogen molecules can be performed cleanly, there is still the trouble of distribution. Existing pipelines, transport trucks, gas stations and their underground tanks are completely incapable of carrying hydrogen and because of that, hydrogen power itself faces a serious chicken and egg scenario. Car companies want to build hydrogen cars but won't do it without the infrastructure to support them and fuel companies want to support and sell hydrogen fuels but won't without cars to supply and that's a real shame.

I honestly believe that if the Clarity isn't the car of tomorrow, its brothers and sisters will be. What you see here is the beginning, genesis. It offers the freedom of a gasoline or diesel engine with the cleanliness of an electric and at the risk of quoting James May from Top Gear, "The reason it's the car of tomorrow is because it's just like the car of today."

1 comment:

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