Racing Toward the Car of the Future

Toyota Prius
Toyota Prius

SACRAMENTO, CA. – Maybe you’ve been driving down the road, minding your own business, when all of a sudden the car next to you catches your eye. It looks almost like a normal car, but there’s something not quite normal about it. It is sleek, and looks rather futuristic. You say to yourself, “Hey, that must be one of those new vehicles they’ve come out with…a hybrid or something.” You gaze at it for a moment until you realize you’re supposed to be concentrating on the road ahead of you, and you drive on, wondering, “is that what everyone’s going to be driving in the future?”

Honda Insight
Honda Insight

The car you most likely saw is one of two relatively new hybrid vehicles, either Toyota’s “Prius” or the Honda “Insight.” These cars are commercially produced and cost the average consumer around $20,000. They use hybrid technology to power themselves, which means that they are run both electrically and with a regular internal combustion engine. As can be read at Toyota’s website (, “A highly efficient gas engine combined with an advanced electric motor deliver the power to drive Prius.” We read at Honda’s site ( “The heart of the hybrid system is Honda’s innovative Integrated Motor Assist (IMA™), which couples an all-new 1.0 liter, 3-cylinder engine with an ultra-thin electric motor for outstanding performance and efficiency.” Hybrids are just one type of energy-saving car that automobile manufacturers are currently researching as energy-saving “cars of the future”. The world’s increased attention on finding lower emission to zero emission vehicles (ZEV) has fueled a vast amount of research in designing energy-saving cars. So we ask again, which direction is the automobile market heading and what are we really going to see on the roads in the next 2-10 years?

Some of the energy-saving vehicles that have been developed by today’s top researchers are all electric vehicles, which are low maintenance, short range cars, hybrid vehicles, which use both electricity and gas or diesel and can go longer distances, and fuel cell vehicles, some of which are virtually zero emission and are still in the stages of being designed and tested.

I interviewed representatives from three automobile companies and asked them a little bit about their current projects and which cars they believe we’ll be seeing on the roads in the next few years. I talked to Mr. John Wallace, Executive Director, Th!nk Group of Ford Motor Company, first. He states that Ford focuses on “4 main areas of automobile development. First, Ford is always working on improving the efficiency of today’s mainstream vehicles. Second, they have developed 2 electric vehicles for community use. Third, they have developed the “Escape” SUV hybrid which we should see in about 2003. Lastly, they are working on the development of fuel cell vehicles, of which they have several protoypes, including a fuel cell version of the Ford Focus, which is “the most popular car in the world.” Mr. Wallace believes that in the next few years, the cars we will be seeing on the road will be the same kind we have now, meaning internal combustion engines, but they will be improved. He states that the US will still be using a majority of gasoline powered vehicles while in Europe the diesel engine will probably remain popular. He believes the number of hybrid cars will definitely increase, but it may take decades before we start to see hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become mainstream, mostly because hydrogen fuel cell technology is still in early stages of development. Mr. Wallace also commented on the fact that environmental regulations and the desire to reduce emissions all over the world, especially in California, is a great motivator for the research and development of cutting edge, energy saving cars. He hopes that the cars of the near future will be modern diesels and hybrid electrics.

DaimlerChrysler’s Wolfgang Weiss
with Necar 5

My next interview was with Mr. Wolfgang Weiss, the General Manager of the Fuel Cell project for DaimlerChrysler. I met Mr. Weiss at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento, California. Some of DaimlerChrysler’s projects include the NECAR 4, which is a hydrogen powered electric vehicle, the Jeep Commander, a luxury SUV which uses fuel cells and runs on methanol, and the NECAR 5, which is also a methanol fuel cell vehicle. The main focus of the DaimlerChrysler fuel cell project is developing fuel cell vehicles for the future. The DaimlerChrysler fuel cell project is part of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, and Mr. Weiss states that the several automobile companies in the partnership “are working closely together to try to set some standards for fuel cell research and development.” Mr. Weiss hopes that the hydrogen fuel cell car will be the car of the near future, yet he says we must realize that hydrogen fuel cell technology is still a “newborn” and it will be many years, perhaps a decade before they can really be implemented into the mainstream. After our interview, Mr. Weiss was generous enough to show me the NECAR 4 at the DaimlerChrysler facility, and I was only too glad to see such an extraordinary piece of technology. The car looked like it would be fun to ride in. Mr. Weiss says that the engineers test drive it around Sacramento and even up into the mountains. I was also able to view the hydrogen storage tank that the fuel cell partnership uses to store its hydrogen fuel for its prototype hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Anuvu’s prototype car

My third interview was with Mr. Lyn Cowgill, the Vice President of Marketing at ANUVU, Inc., which is a company specialized in the research and production of fuel cells and fuel cell vehicles. Mr. Cowgill expressed to me the goals and determination of his company in bringing their unique fuel cell cars to the market. Mr. Cowgill says that ANUVU, Inc. “embarked on a project to bring fuel cell technology into commercial production, with a higher level of performance, and to create a solid source of fuel cells.” They also have a fuel cell vehicle program and several concept prototypes, including a fuel cell golf cart, and neighborhood electric vehicles that use a fuel cell system. The hydrogen fuel cell car they have designed has many advantages. It is lightweight, made of high energy absorbing carbon fiber, and Mr. Cowgill states that “a great advantage of their car is that the vehicle is designed from the ground up so that the elements are fully integrated with one another which optimizes efficiency. Thus the entire interior of the car is integrated as well as the fuel cell.” ANUVU, Inc. is also a great advocate of personalized hydrogen refueling stations, which will help bring hydrogen fuel cell cars onto the market faster, rather than waiting for commercial infrastructure to be designed and built. The personalized refueling stations would be added into the cost of the car. Thus ANUVU, Inc. believes that it can bring hydrogen fuel cell vehicles onto the market sooner rather than later, although Mr. Cowgill believes that in the next few years there will still be mostly gasoline powered engines. He states 2004 will be a critical year in which fuel cell vehicles will hopefully be available to consumers , and 2006 he hopes the fuel cell will be available in all vehicle classes. He also speculates that between 2006-2008 the fuel cell vehicle should rise to worldwide popularity and usage.

Hydrogen Station
Hydrogen Station
CA Fuel Cell Partnership

In addition to the three car company representatives, I also interviewed Mr. Joe Irvin, Communications Manager of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, in order to find out his thoughts on the direction of the automobile market. He states that in the near term, “the internal combustion engine will still remain the dominant power source, however consumers will begin to see more choices.” He states that fuel cells are not expected to be available until 8 to 10 years from now. He says California is on the leading edge of technology because of many of its emission regulations, but the cost of gas really drives the car market, and as long as it is cheap in the US, people will continue to drive gasoline cars, especially SUVs. He hopes hybrid technolgy will take hold soon because it helps to pave the way for consumer awareness and the electric drive train.

There seems to be an agreement amongst these executives that the cars we see on the road probably won’t change too much in the next few years, although they will probably be more efficient and less polluting. Within the next decade, we’ll see more hybrid vehicles and the introduction of fuel cell vehicles, hopefully with the ultimate aim of achieving the zero emission hydrogen fuel cell vehicle by 2010.

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