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Bottleneck on Electric Avenue


If you’re planning to drive a fuel cell vehicle in the near future, don’t clear out a space in your garage just yet. Congress and the Bush Administration have ensured that America’s love affair with gas-guzzlers will endure, at least for now.

By Stephen Meador

Summer 2002

That was the take-home message from a few of the automotive technology experts that participated in a recent panel discussion hosted by Ira Flatow of National Public Radio. Flatow’s radio show, called Science Friday, was broadcast live from the campus of Michigan State University on March 15. Four local experts discussed options for increasing automotive fuel efficiencies and reducing pollution, including fuel cell vehicles, hybrids, and improved internal combustion engines. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) also participated in the discussion remotely.


Advanced technology vehicles have been a racy topic for nearly a decade. The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV) was a cooperative program between the federal government and the automotive industry that began in

1993. The goal of PNGV was to develop an 80 miles per gallon vehicle that was safe and affordable. During eight years of research, U.S. automakers were able to build vehicle prototypes that approached or met the 80-mpg goal. However, in August 2001 the Bush administration dropped PNGV, citing affordability and emissions problems with the prototypes. PNGV was replaced by the Freedom Cooperative

Automotive Research program, whose vehicles will be designed to run on hydrogenpowered fuel cells.

Panelist Robert Culver, executive director of the U.S. Council for Automotive Research and an employee of Ford Motor Company, says fuel cell cars like those developed for the Freedom program should appear within a decade or two. He says the federal government should create demonstration fleets that can prove the capabilities of fuel cell vehicles, move them toward a “marketable cost” and spur the development of a hydrogen fuel infrastructure like that which now exists for gasoline.

Finding ways to economically convert source fuels into hydrogen while keeping the resulting pollutants in check will be one challenge to building that infrastructure. Potential source fuels include fossil fuels, plant biomass and renewables, such as solar and wind energy. According to host Flatow, some Midwestern farmers are anxious to erect windmills in their fields and generate income by selling energy back to the power grid, energy that might someday be used to produce hydrogen fuel.

MSU’s Engine Research Laboratory Director Harold Schock questioned the practicality of converting plant biomass, noting that a bumper crop of soybeans in the U.S. would only produce enough hydrogen to keep all the buses in the country running for about one week. He said it now costs at least 160 times more to produce one unit of energy through fuel cells than it does using internal combustion engines. He estimated it would be at least 20 or 30 years before fuel cell vehicles were economically viable and commonplace.

“I would be very happy if I lived long enough to see a fuel cell vehicle on the highway,” he says.

Charles Griffith, Automotive Project Director at the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor, says that a loss of efficiency occurs when converting any source fuel to hydrogen and that natural gas would probably be the most viable hydrogen fuel source. He says residential and commercial buildings will probably utilize fuel cells before automobiles.

While discussion of fuel cell technologies is needed, he adds, it should not shift attention from more viable and less glamorous alternatives that can reverse the current trend toward lower fuel economy in the U.S.


One of these alternatives is hybrid vehicles, which are currently on the market in small numbers. Hybrids are powered by two energy sources, such as diesel and electricity or gasoline and electricity. They increase fuel efficiency by capturing excess energy that is generated while the vehicle is being powered by its internal combustion engine, storing this energy in batteries and using it later when the car is being powered electrically.

According to the panelists, potential near term improvements in hybrids include smaller batteries and lighter vehicle structures. Michael Flynn of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute says U.S. automakers are not highly profitable even in good years. He says they will probably not make substantial investments in “transitional technologies” like hybrids, choosing instead to concentrate their research on fuel cell vehicles. Although Ford will soon be offering a hybrid version of its Escape sport utility vehicle, only the Japanese are currently selling significant numbers of hybrids, such as the Honda

Insight and the Toyota Prius. Flynn notes that foreign manufacturers are probably not yet seeing a profit on hybrids.


Concentrating on fuel cell research could be dangerous for U.S. companies if the technology does not pan out or if it comes too late. UM’s Flynn says that by focusing too narrowly on long-term “Holy Grail” fuel cells, U.S. automakers could be at risk in the short term if oil supply or environmental “shocks” suddenly increase demand for transitional vehicles like hybrids, a demand that could only be met by the Japanese.

“The hybrid is the only thing I see on the near term horizon that would be a significant improvement over the standard car,” Flynn says.

MSU’s Schock agrees that U.S. automakers were failing to focus on the near term. “There is a crisis looming in the next five to 20 years,” he says.


Still another alternative for improving fuel economy is improving the efficiency of today’s internal combustion engines. Because hybrids incorporate internal combustion engines, advances in this area would go hand-in-hand with further hybrid development. Although U.S automakers spent millions to increase fuel efficiencies of internal combustion engines during PNGV, the resulting technologies have yet to be implemented extensively in American-made vehicles. MSU’s Schock notes that about 60 percent of energy produced through today’s internal combustion is lost from the engine before it reaches the transmission.

“There is tremendous potential for gain and improvement in the combustion of these engines,” he said.The Ecology Center’s Griffith suggests the federal government’s push toward fuel cell vehicles may be an attempt to provide political cover for legislators who recently voted down increasing the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.

MSU’s Hybrid Program Officials at MSU are not waiting for an oil shock or environmental crisis before trying out advanced technology vehicles.At the request of the University Committee for a Sustainable Campus, MSU’s Automotive Services Department recently purchased four hybrids that are now part of the fleet.

According to Terry Link, Director of the Office of Campus Sustainability, the vehicles get about 20 mpg more than most of the other fleet cars while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.He likes the way they drive and requests them at every opportunity. Link said one problem, however,was that the hybrids being used now are foreign.

“I suspect we would buy more if domestic automakers were building them,” he said.

“The hybrid is the only thing I see on the near term horizon that would be a significant improvement over the standard car.”

Michael Flynn, University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute established by the Energy Policy and Conservation Act in 1975, CAFE standards dictate the average vehicle fuel efficiencies U.S. automakers must meet.

The fuel economy stakes are high for a number of reasons. More than 40 percent of the oil consumed in the U.S. each day goes to fuel cars and light trucks.

Decreasing consumption would not only decrease U.S. dependence on foreign oil and reduce the pressure to drill on sensitive public lands, it would also substantially reduce the amount of greenhouse gases and other pollutants being emitted into the atmosphere.

The Sierra Club estimates that a Ford Excursion SUV, which gets about 13 mpg, will generate about 134 tons of carbon dioxide over the life of the vehicle, compared to about 27 tons for a Honda Insight hybrid, which gets about 45 mpg— that’s a difference of more than 100 tons.

On March 13, the Senate rejected an amendment to the energy bill offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would have increased the combined CAFE standard for cars and light trucks from 24 mpg to 36 mpg by 2015. Light trucks include pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles.

In 2001, sales of light trucks exceeded sales of passenger cars for the first time ever, due primarily to the popularity of SUVs. Light trucks are held to less stringent fuel efficiency and emissions standards than passenger cars due to a loophole in the Clean Air Act. These standards were set years ago when light trucks were used primarily as agricultural and commercial work vehicles, and not as passenger vehicles like they are today.

Instead of the Kerry-McCain Amendment, senators adopted an amendment put forward by Sens. Levin and Christopher Bond (R-Mo.) maintaining the current CAFE standards of 27.5 mpg for passenger cars and 20.7 mpg for light trucks. The Senate voted separately to exempt pickup trucks from any future increases in CAFE standards. In addition to maintaining the current standards, the Levin-Bond Amendment tasked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) with exploring new fuel efficiency standards. After the vote, Sen. Lott (R-Miss.) called it a victory for consumer choice, while Sen. Kerry said that it was a move backward.


Sen. Levin joined the Science Friday discussion via telephone. He says the 36-mpg standard included in the Kerry-McCain Amendment was an “arbitrary number,” and determining new standards should be left to experts, not Congress. Citing a recent National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study, he says increased CAFE standards had compromised passenger safety in the past, and any changes to the current standards must take into account safety, as well as cost and technology. Levin adds that the CAFE system now limits the number of American-made vehicles that can be sold while ignoring the number of foreign vehicles sold that are of equal size and efficiency, discriminating against U.S. automakers and autoworkers.

“That’s what the CAFE system has done,” he says. “It gives a discriminatory advantage to no-more-efficient imported vehicles.”

In response to Sen. Levin’s comments, MSU’s Schock says if American and foreign vehicles are being treated differently, it is the responsibility of Congress to provide a remedy. UM’s Flynn adds that when the Big Three automakers were recently asked what they thought was “reasonably attainable” in terms of improved fuel efficiencies, they said 33 mpg for passenger cars and 25 mpg for light trucks was possible by 2009. Flynn says Congress could have explored using these lower numbers as short term goals, but instead limited their debate to the higher mpg number specified in the failed Kerry-McCain Amendment which would have taken effect much later.

The Ecology Center’s Griffith questions the wisdom of tasking the NHTSA with developing new standards, noting its lack of resources and expertise, its oversight by an “auto-friendly White House” and its reluctance to address the issue in the past.

He adds that the number one recommendation of the NAS study quoted by Sen. Levin was that decisions about fuel efficiency standards, while difficult, should be made by elected officials.

“That’s the very advice that now Congress is ignoring,” he says.


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