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Consuming Visions

Given the challenges, Johannes Ebner, the executive in DaimlerChrysler’s fuel cell program responsible for fuel infrastructure, acknowledges that earlier company estimates putting 20,000 to 40,000 of the cars on the road in 2004 now look unrealistic: “It will be a very limited production.” Ballard, DaimlerChrysler and Ford will begin testing their technologies on consumers next year in California, where tough requirements for pollution-free vehicles are set to take effect in 2003. The California Fuel Cell Program (formed by these three companies along with other carmakers, fuel cell makers and several big oil companies) plans to put 60 fuel cell cars and buses on the road-taking fuel cell vehicles out of the hands of careful engineers and into the hands of demanding consumers.

These California cars, like the Commander II, will be custom-built. The real test for fuel cells will come when mass-produced cars hit the road-which both Ford and DaimlerChrysler have vowed to do in 2004 despite knowing that they will lose money on them. “We’ve stated we’ll have vehicles in the public’s hands, and there are programs in place to do that, but that doesn’t mean they’re commercially viable,” says Ford’s Kopf. He concedes that fuel cell cars are now “a lot more expensive” than battery-powered cars, which themselves are not cheap. Ford would have to charge at least $35,000 to cover costs on its battery-powered Ranger pickup, almost three times more than the price tag that wins it a profit for a no-frills combustion-engine Ranger.

Why are carmakers laying plans to lose money? Kopf says there is always the possibility that the technology will pay off sooner than expected. Instability in the Middle East, for example, could bump gasoline to $5 per gallon, sending Americans searching for fuel efficiency just as the oil crises did in the 1970s. “We want to have developed a core engineering capability-to know where the problems are, where we need to simplify. We want to be prepared.”

But he says the ultimate motivation is long-range. The fuel cell promises to make the automobile sustainable, cutting pollution and freeing it from the politics of oil-and ensuring that Ford can make as much of a killing in this century as it did in the last. The big appeal of fuel cells is “the promise of zero tailpipe emissions, potentially no greenhouse gas emissions and energy independence,” says Kopf. “Those are the holy grails of the automotive industry. ”

Looking into the future, Kopf imagines a world in which electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar cells generates hydrogen from water-the reverse of the fuel cell process-to power a fleet of fuel cell vehicles. “You could make a fuel system and vehicle that produces zero greenhouse gases and zero tailpipe emissions-a hydrogen-oxygen-water cycle that is sustainable forever. That’s the ultimate goal.”

One might expect that kind of talk to unnerve the leaders at DaimlerChrysler, who recently announced a crash program to cut $2 billion from operations to quell shareholder anxiety over declining share prices and weak returns. But Ebner says DaimlerChrysler chairman Juergen Schrempp is personally protecting the fuel cell program’s $1 billion line of credit as a “pipeline to the future.” Schrempp’s vision sounds even more messianic than Kopf’s.

In a recent speech to the World Engineers Convention, the engineer-turned-business leader implored engineers “around the world” to throw down their projects and jump on the fuel cell bandwagon. Schrempp’s rationale? Ensuring that future generations are not overwhelmed by global climate change and economic dislocations from declining oil supplies. “We all share the responsibility for carrying out this project, for the responsibility for carrying out this project, for the assumption of responsibility is part of the dignity of human beings.”

COMPANIES STRATEGY PLANS DaimlerChrysler, Ballard Power Systems, and Ford MotorPartnering to commercialize fuel cells, fuel processors and electric drives. Ballard is focusing on cutting the costs of fuel cells, while DaimlerChrysler and Ford are demonstrating integrated vehicles running on compressed hydrogen, liquid hydrogen and methanol. Scheduled to demonstrate 30-40 vehicles in California between 2001 and 2003. Designing models for “limited production” in 2004. GM and ToyotaPartnering on electric cars. Both companies, leaders in battery and gasoline-electric hybrid technologies, have developed fully functional fuel cell concept cars, fuel cells and hydrogen storage systems.Expect to have fuel cell cars ready for commercialization by 2004. Ongoing investment in gasoline fuel processors. HondaBullish about its ultra-clean internal combustion technology, but also investing in fuel cells. Honda has built fuel cell concept cars with Ballard stacks and proprietary stacks, but equipment occupies rear passenger space. Plans to have a package of technologies ready for commercializing fuel cell cars by 2003, but hasn’t announced production plans yet. NissanAdapted its battery-powered station wagon to carry Ballard fuel cells and a methanol processor, but equipment occupies rear passenger space.Next prototype to stow equipment under the floor. Could produce fuel cell cars as early as 2003. BMW, International Fuel Cells, and Delphi Automotive Systems Partnering to replace batteries with fuel cell auxiliary power units (APUs) in combustion- powered cars.Plans to commercialize fuel cell APUs by 2005.

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