Last updateWed, 20 Sep 2017 9am

On The Road

The confusing future of automobile fuels

Gary Anderson/Special to the Town Crier
The Green Car Journal named the Honda Accord – offered in standard gas and gas-hybrid versions – “Green Car of the Year” at the Los Angeles International Auto Show.

With California the de facto leader of an eight-state consortium to reduce automotive emissions, the Los Angeles International Auto Show, held the week before Thanksgiving, seemed like the logical place to find out what the future holds for automobile fuel systems.

That’s where we were Nov. 20 and 21, and sure enough, the big introductions on the Honda, Toyota and Hyundai stands included vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel-cell systems that they are promising to put into production in the next two years.

The benefit of fuel-cell electronic vehicles is that they produce zero emissions on the road. Bringing its new Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV) Concept out from behind a waterfall at the front of the stage, the Honda executives touted the fact that nothing comes out of the tailpipe except pure water vapor.

The fuel-cell vehicles also have an advantage over zero-emissions battery electric vehicles like the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf now running around the streets of Los Altos. An FCEV can be fueled to full 300-mile-range capacity in under five minutes.

Fuel-cell systems use electricity – generated from carbon fuels or renewable sources – to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen. The hydrogen is captured and transported to a filling station before being compressed and pushed into a pressurized tank in the automobile. To power the car, the hydrogen recombines with oxygen in the fuel-cell stack to release the stored-up energy as electricity. The electricity charges an onboard battery that powers the car through electric motors. All of this technology is developed and proven.

There is just one teeny, tiny problem, however: The only place in the Bay Area where a fuel-cell car can get a fill-up is in Emeryville. If you’re one of the test customers driving one of the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell cars or Honda Clarity FCEVs in Los Angeles, life is a bit better. There are five stations in greater Los Angeles, so you might have to drive only 10-15 miles for a fill-up. There are no firm plans right now to improve this situation in the Bay Area.

Confused about whether we will or won’t see fuel-cell cars in the marketplace, even in California, in our future? We certainly are.

But never fear. With the positive reception Tesla has garnered for its first model – Consumer Reports last month wrote that Tesla owners are more loyal to their vehicles than any other automobile brand in the history of the magazine’s surveys – there were battery electric vehicles on several other manufacturers’ stages at the auto show. That included the Audi e-tron, the Toyota RAV4 EV, the VW eGolf Hatchback, the Mercedes-Benz Smart and B-Class EV and the Cadillac ELR. Outside the convention center, more than 50 BMW i3 battery electric vehicles were available for test-drives around downtown.

The downside of these vehicles is that the batteries require four to eight hours of charging to drive a range of 80 to 200 miles. The upside is that the batteries can be charged anywhere there is electricity.

But wait, there’s more. If you like the idea of refueling your car from a power plug most of the time but want to make sure that you won’t run out of juice on the road, there are options. Most automakers, from Toyota to Porsche, displayed new plug-in hybrids on their stands, following the ground-breaking Chevrolet Volt. So perhaps the combination of battery power and an internal-combustion engine will be the answer.

What explains this flood of new zero-emission vehicles with such radically differing technologies?

The reality is that no one believes the free market, operating by itself and acting only out of profit-oriented self-interest, is going to lead us out of the fossil-fueled age of internal combustion. Although only a few years ago we were worried about running out of oil and/or breathable air in our lifetimes, new technologies to produce oil and continuing improvements in emissions and fuel efficiency in internal combustion have pushed the challenges well past the planning horizon of any investor.

This means that the transition to alternative fuels isn’t going to happen without the involvement of government agencies at the national and local levels, offering both sticks and carrots to encourage the auto manufacturers and energy companies to develop necessary products.

In California and the seven states following its lead, legislation mandates that at least 15 percent of all cars sold in these states by 2025 must produce zero emissions (battery electric or fuel-cell electric). Manufacturers recently challenged those standards, because little progress has been made toward the long-range goal in any state except California, but they were told the standards would not be relaxed.

Tax incentives are offered now to reduce the cost of battery electric vehicles to consumers, and state and federal governments provide various kinds of support to fund development of both the fueling infrastructure and improvement in the technologies.

The problem is, as we have seen in the past, if the government shifts support from one technology to another – like five years ago when the Department of Energy shifted toward battery development and away from fuel-cell development – the game can change dramatically.

Manufacturers have been given a clear but challenging goal in the next 10 years, one that will require active involvement by government, but they have no assurance which of the two paths that involvement may take. The companies are forced to bet on red and black, promising that there will be either fuel-cell cars or battery electric cars, depending on where the ball drops.

In the meantime, in the main lobby of the convention center, Green Car Journal unveiled its “Green Car of the Year” for 2013. Was it some new gee-whiz technology? Nope. The award this year went to the Honda Accord line of vehicles, offered in standard gasoline and gas-hybrid versions. The publication noted that Honda received recognition for the extent of its contribution to clean air and renewable resources, simply by continuing each year to improve fuel efficiency, reduce emissions and increase reliability in a car that the mainstream automobile consumer can afford.

Progress is being made, but the future remains clouded by the uncertainty of government policy.

Longtime 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.

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