'Back to the Future' of Cars

The future is a subject that has fascinated great imaginations. H.G. Well's The Time Machine, George Orwell's 1984 and Philip K. Dick's Minority Report all offer images of what the future will bring. In some cases the fiction does eventually become reality.

One of the latest drives to bring the future closer to today is being led by General Motors and it's a drive toward a hydrogen-based economy.

"The next automotive revolution will be based on hydrogen powered fuel cells," said David Barthmuss, GM manager of its Energy/Environment and Sustainability staff. "We think that fuel cell vehicles will do to today's cars what our cars did to the horse and buggy a hundred years ago."

A bold goal, but one that has more than just environmental benefits if it can be pulled off.

"Fuel cell technology is the wave of the future," said President Bush during a speech on the environment back in February. "This dependence on foreign oil is a matter of national security. To put it bluntly, we rely upon energy sources that don't particularly like us."

Bush was referring to countries in the troubled Middle East, where much of the world's oil is concentrated.

But Washington knows there are several bumps in the road that the automotive industry needs to smooth over before fuel cell technology is viable.

The Hydrogen1, a GM prototype that runs entirely on fuel cell technology, for example, comes with a current price tag of well over a million dollars -- taking research and development into account. That is a sticker price consumers can't roll with.

"We've got to bring the cost down," said Neil Schilke, General Director of Engineering at GM's Public Policy Center and a leader of the GM Tech Tour, which is rolling through several U.S. cities this summer.

"It's an exciting time to be an automotive engineer if you look at the fact that the automobile industry is going to change over the next few decades," said Schilke. "Fuel cell technology is a way to bring hydrogen technology to the world."

He added that hydrogen technology is also environmentally sound.

"You can do several different things to get hydrogen. You can extract it from gasoline or from natural gas by reforming those fuels," he said. "And the only emissions from the fuel cell is heat and water, so it's as environmentally friendly as they come."

Then why are auto industry insiders skeptical?

"It's going to be decades before we can afford it," said Car and Driver editor-in-chief Csaba Csere.

Csere said basic needs like refueling stations will cost big bucks to transition to hydrogen and won't be worth the price or the effort if hydrogen is extracted from petrochemicals, like it is today.

"You can manufacture the hydrogen from methanol, which is a liquid like gasoline and a lot easier to store on the car," Csere said. "But then you basically have a mini refinery on board which adds to the complication and expense." Also, "they need a catalytic material in order to combine the hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity. It's typically platinum and it costs twice as much per ounce than gold does."

These are issues fuel cell researchers are aware of, and willing to tackle.

"We (GM) are spending hundreds of millions of dollars," Barthmuss said. "We want to be the first automobile maker to sell one million fuel cell vehicles. We don't want to be the company that has a vacuum tube when the world is using transistors."

One of the innovations designed around fuel cell technology is a futuristic looking vehicle called the Autonomy. Depending on its owner's whim, it can carry the body of a sports car or a pickup truck.

"We can design a vehicle around the fuel cell without any mechanical constraints," said Schilke. "Electronic motors drive the wheels, and all systems are controlled electronically, including steering. It's the ultimate in (drive-)by-wire technology, similar to an aircraft."

"The technology clearly works," said Csere. "We've been using it in spacecraft for forty some years, so that's not the issue. The issue is making it work at a reasonable cost."

As the saying goes, "where there's a will, there's a way."