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Friday, Oct. 19, 2001

STAGING A COMEBACK

Automakers rev up search for ultimate clean car


Staff writer

Driven by concerns over global warming and the prospect of tougher restrictions, automakers worldwide have moved up a gear in the race to build the ultimate clean car.

Honda's FCX-V3 runs on hydrogen and produces no greenhouse-causing waste.

Japanese firms enjoyed success in energy efficiency and low nitrogen oxide emissions in the 1970s and 1980s, but the ongoing competition represents a fundamentally new ball game -- a shift from gasoline to cleaner energy sources.

The current industry consensus is that cars running on fuel cells, which create electricity via a hydrogen-oxygen reaction and emit only water, are the main contenders for replacing conventional gasoline-powered vehicles.

The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has set a target for the number of fuel cell vehicles in use in 2010 at 50,000 and 5 million by 2020.

The realization of such targets would spell only good news for the environment, said Hironosuke Ikeda, a lecturer at Saga University and an expert on fuel cell technology.

Fuel cell vehicles boast a high tank-to-wheel energy efficiency of 30 percent to 40 percent, compared with roughly 12 percent for gasoline-powered cars, he said. Tank-to-wheel efficiency is the ratio of actual driving force to a fuel's potential power.

Achieving the government-set goal, however, will not be easy, said Shoji Tange of the Japan Electric Vehicle Association's fuel cell electric vehicle center.

For the moment, automakers are divided on the types of fuel cell mechanisms, the time frame and courses toward the creation of a clean car.

Basically, there are two types of fuel cell cars, depending on the method of supplying hydrogen. One carries a hydrogen tank onboard and the another uses an onboard fuel converter to derive hydrogen from methanol or petroleum.

Honda Motor Co., which introduced its first test fuel cell vehicle in 1999 and unveiled the fourth model last month, is among those seeing a clear advantage in the hydrogen-tank type, although it is not completely ruling out other options.

"We believe a high-pressure hydrogen fuel tank is best," Honda spokeswoman Noriko Okamoto said, "because the use of methanol or other fossil fuels as the source of hydrogen still leads to the discharge of carbon dioxide."

Thanks to a substantial improvement in fuel cell technology, Honda's latest model, the FCX-V4, has achieved performance almost equivalent to that of conventional gasoline-powered cars, achieving maximum speeds of 140 kph and distances of 300 km on a tank, she said.

In contrast, German-American auto giant DaimlerChrysler AG, which conducted its NECAR5 fuel cell car's first test run on Japanese public roads in February, has opted for methanol as a source of hydrogen.

Other firms leaning toward fuel cell cars using methanol-derived hydrogen include Japan's Mazda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. of the United States, which jointly developed the Premacy FC-EV.

Isato Mochida, spokesman for DaimlerChrysler Japan Holding Ltd., acknowledged that using an onboard hydrogen tank delivers the best performance in terms of energy efficiency.

But he said his company sees advantages in promoting the methanol-oriented fuel cell car, whose carbon dioxide emissions are roughly 60 percent that of gasoline-powered vehicles, because it is closer to realization.

"Methanol is a liquid and can be supplied by modifying existing gas stations -- a major advantage of using a methanol-driven fuel cell."

Indeed, refueling infrastructure looms as a key factor in the success of fuel cell cars.

Honda's Okamoto said her firm aims to begin the commercial production of fuel cell cars in 2003 on a limited scale. But she admits that it will take two to three decades before the cars become mainstream because it would take that much time for enough hydrogen supply stations to be constructed.

Like Honda, Toyota Motor Corp. will be adopting a high-pressure hydrogen storage tank for its fuel cell model.

The FCHV-4, the fourth version of Toyota's fuel cell hybrid vehicle, has a maximum speed of more than 150 kph and can travel 250 km on a full charge, while attaining energy efficiency three times that of gasoline-powered cars, according to Tokuhiko Nakamura, who is in charge of developing fuel cell hybrid vehicles. Toyota aims to have cars based on the FCHV-4 model make a commercial debut in 2003, eyeing government agencies and other public entities as potential markets.

The company is also developing a fuel cell car powered by so-called clean hydrocarbon, which is refined from such fossil fuels as petroleum, coal and natural gas.

With hydrogen supply infrastructure unlikely to emerge anytime soon, cars running on clean hydrocarbons, which can be supplied by existing gas stations, are advantageous, said Hirohisa Kitano, a spokesman for Toyota.

Another challenge is overcoming massive development costs and making the cars affordable to the public.

Hiroshi Okuda, chairman of Toyota, said last year that if his firm were to sell its prototype fuel cell car, it would cost around 302 million yen.

Having achieved a series of other goals, such as high energy efficiency, performance and utility, Kitano said, "A major problem facing us now is cost."

In a bid to save development costs, disperse risks involved and optimize their respectively held technologies, automakers have started cooperating with each other and sharing their knowhow.

Toyota has formed an alliance with General Motors Corp. and Exxon Mobil Corp. of the United States to jointly develop fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen converted from petroleum.

DaimlerChrysler and Ford have invested in Canadian fuel cell manufacturer Ballard Power Systems Inc., which invented the Polymer Electrolyte Fuel Cell, triggering an acceleration in fuel cell car development.

The latest move toward collaboration was made Wednesday, when Suzuki Motor Corp. and GM, its top shareholder, announced they would tie up on fuel cell car development.

"The cost of research and development of fuel cells has become so prohibitive, that no single car company can go it alone -- certainly not a company our size," Hiroshi Tsuda, executive director of Suzuki, told a news conference.

What automakers envision beyond the massive investment is the chance to set a global standard for clean cars.

"If we can set the de facto standard for fuel cell cars, it would be a big business chance. It may enable us to get a 30 percent share of the global market," said Katsumi Yoshitake, spokesman for Mazda Motor Co.

But he admitted that fuel cell car development is also a kind of defense, to prevent the competition from getting too far in front.

Naoto Hashimoto, an analyst at Nomura Securities Co., said fuel cell car development is crucial for Japanese carmakers to survive in the global market, especially in Europe.

"In Europe, where consumers are quite aware of environmental issues, companies that are not Earth-friendly are being expelled from the market," Hashimoto said. "Japanese automakers must develop fuel cell cars if they do not want to lose in Europe."

Adopting the highest environmental standards is a must to maintain a cutting edge in the global market. And that is exactly how Japanese automakers rose in the '70s and '80s, when they were confronted with the world's strictest emission controls.

The question is whether Japanese automakers, having devoted so much money and energy, stand a fair chance of winning the competition this time around.

Tange of the Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Center said they do. He pointed out that the technology that has accumulated from the development of electric vehicles and hybrid cars could be applied to fuel cell cars as well.

Domestic automakers have also led in developing compact and lightweight batteries, including nickel-hydrogen and lithium ion batteries, and have developed the world's smallest and most energy-efficient motors, he explained.

He added that technology used in hybrid cars that run on gasoline engines and an electric motor, can also be applied to fuel cell cars. As examples, he cited a fuel-selecting system that automatically makes an optimum fuel choice for different driving conditions and an onboard charging system for the battery.

Although foreign automakers are developing fuel cell cars without using such hybrid mechanisms, Tange said he believes the technology is key to producing high-performance fuel cell vehicles.

Toyota, which introduced the world's first mass-produced hybrid car, the Prius, has adopted its own hybrid system to its fuel cell cars. Likewise, Honda developed its own hybrid system for its FCX series.

Mochida of DaimlerChrysler Japan acknowledged that Japanese automakers are quick on the uptake.

In 1994, Daimler-Benz AG of Germany -- which later merged with Chrysler Motor Co. into DaimlerChrysler -- introduced the NECAR 1, the world's first fuel cell vehicle, after years of research and development begun in the late '80s.

Just a few years ago, when DaimlerChrysler introduced its fuel cell models in Japan, he said a typical reaction from Japanese engineers was "Does such a car really run?"

Ikeda of Saga University said there are ample possibilities for Japanese automakers to lead in the design of fuel cell vehicles.

Just how soon such a new generation of vehicle will enter people's everyday lives and which type of fuel cell system will prevail, however, remains unclear.

Minoru Kitaguchi, deputy director general of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association's environment department, said there is a long way to go before fuel cell cars become widespread, given the slow pace at which already commercialized low-emission cars such as those running on compressed natural gas or electricity are accepted.

As of March, there were only 7,050 CNG cars and 2,600 electric cars on the road, according to the association.

Still, Japanese automakers cannot afford to withdraw from the ongoing contest, Hashimoto said.

"The fuel cell will eventually replace current systems. Failing to catch up in the development race means losing a stake in the future," he said.



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