Exhibitors at last month’s LA International Auto Show showed off an array of ways to reduce auto emissions and the use of petroleum-based fuel.
Every manufacturer’s stand featured at least one gas-powered hybrid – economy, luxury, sedan or SUV. Although hybrids may improve urban air, they cost more and most aren’t any more fuel efficient than a good diesel or gas-powered car.
But what about cars that use no gas at all? We’ve seen those on Los Altos streets for two years, the sporty Teslas, but they’re only big enough for two people. Mercedes-Benz is preparing to release an electrifying high-priced sports car of its own, a full-electric version of the SLS AMG.
In the family-sedan category, the new Nissan Leaf offers the same freedom from gas stations. Rated as midsized by the Environmental Protection Agency, it seats four and has an equivalent gas mileage of 99 mpg. On sale early next year for less than $30,000 (after the federal tax refund), this truly may be the first practical zero-emission vehicle.
Just don’t ask what kind of mileage it will get on the highway: the EPA rates its range at less than 75 mpg – Nissan says “up to 100 in slower-speed urban use” – on a full charge of its lithium-ion batteries. That full charge will take at least eight hours on a normal household circuit and four hours with the optional household charger installed. But if you live in Los Altos Hills and work in Palo Alto, you’ll be good to go, and can even find special parking spaces with power rechargers in the public garages.
Those suffering from what commentators call “range anxiety” and who are willing to be less emissions-aware may want to check out the much-hyped and long-anticipated Chevrolet Volt. On sale next year for approximately $40,000, the Volt has a small auxiliary gasoline engine that can charge the batteries after the car reaches its 40-mile limit on its smaller pack of batteries. A holiday trip for the family is completely realistic in this four-passenger, five-door model. Charging the batteries overnight and filling the gas tank before leaving for grandma’s house should provide approximately 300 miles of travel until needing to stop at a gas station or standard electric power plug.
The downside for Leaf and Volt owners is that the battery packs in these cars are expensive, heavy and take up a lot of room. There is also the problem of what happens when several customers in one neighborhood recharge their cars on a hot summer evening when electricity is in peak demand.
Using similar extended-range electric technology, but with no promises to put the car into production, Jaguar displayed easily the most attractive car at the show, the C-X75 sports car. The batteries in this operational concept car provide a 70-mile range, then two fist-sized turbine-powered generators kick in to recharge them, giving the car an overall range of 560 miles.
Longer-term, based on what we saw at the show, expect to see hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars on the road that are free of the problems of range, charging time, battery weight and space limitations. After seeing the Honda Clarity launched last year – with test vehicles now in the hands of real customers for more than a year – we were excited to see a second fuel-cell car at the show.
The Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, built within the shell of a standard B-Class Mercedes-Benz compact, could be described as a zero-emission propulsion technology ready for prime time. The company will lease customers 200 of these cars for a long-term feasibility demonstration, with 50 of them going to Los Angeles and 20 to San Francisco.
Essentially, the technology uses electricity to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen, with the hydrogen then pumped into tanks in the vehicle. In a sense, that’s like using the hydrogen tanks as if they were batteries, storing the energy used to create the hydrogen. Under way, the car uses a fuel cell to combine the hydrogen with oxygen in the air to create water while releasing the stored energy. That energy in turn drives electric motors that drive the wheels.
We test-drove one on a 3-mile loop through downtown Los Angeles with three other passengers onboard and our stuff in the trunk. Aside from the silence in the car, and the feeling of slowing down when the throttle was released as regenerative braking generated additional power for the batteries, the car was indistinguishable from a standard automobile.
Honda and now Mercedes have proven fuel-cell technology is practical. The power source fits in a standard vehicle without compromising weight or interior space, the car has a cruising range of more than 200 miles on one refill (which can be accomplished in three minutes) and the manufacturers are confident that at normal production levels, the costs will be equivalent to a typical gas-fueled internal combustion engine.
But there is one problem. Aside from 20 hydrogen fueling stations in the Los Angeles area and two in the Bay Area, there isn’t a place in the state to refill these cars. Even the few hydrogen-fueling stations that do exist are state operated; it is against the law in California for a private dealer to sell pressurized hydrogen to a private customer. Assuming that the demonstration proves what Mercedes and Honda believe – that fuel cells are the long-term solution to our gas dependence and environmental problems – and that the state and federal government and gas companies participating in these pilot efforts get onboard, it will take at least five years before a hydrogen distribution infrastructure is available in even large urban centers.
So what did we learn at the show? There definitely is a bright light at the end of the tunnel of environmental and energy problems, but the end of that tunnel looks a long distance away.
Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.