AUTO INDUSTRY GM revs up its efforts on alternative-fuel cars
GM is taking a leading role on environmentally friendly vehicles, experts say.
LOS ANGELES TIMES
The driver looks through a vast, sloped windshield that covers space usually taken up by an engine. There is no dashboard, instrument panel, steering wheel or foot pedals -- just a set of adjustable footrests. All controls are electronic; the driver twists a pair of handles to go, moves them to turn and squeezes them to stop.
This, though, is no Hollywood filmmaker's fantasy car.
It is General Motors Corp.'s Hy-Wire, a hydrogen-fueled, electricity-producing concept car that the company debuted in Sacramento, Calif., this month. The car's fuel cell produces 94 kilowatts of power; that's equal to 126 horsepower, about the same as found in a Ford Focus. The vehicle, which generates a loud whine when moving, can travel 140 miles before refueling.
Efforts to produce environmentally friendly, hydrogen-powered automobiles were raised to new levels of visibility last month when President Bush in his State of the Union speech pledged to provide $1.2 billion to further fuel research.
In addition to GM, DaimlerChrysler, Ford Motor Co., Honda Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and others already have spent billions developing alternative-fuel vehicles.
But some experts say that of all the automakers, GM is racing out ahead, developing cars that not only use hydrogen instead of gasoline but that replace old-fashioned hydraulic and mechanical parts, including brakes and steering systems, with high-tech electronics.
In fact, the company has vowed to become the first carmaker to sell a million fuel-cell vehicles and expects to start putting them on the market in 2010 -- five to 10 years sooner than the timetable cited by most of its competitors.
Some think GM is overreaching, but others are convinced it may well be able to meet its goal. "GM has always been out there, pushing on technology, but has been quiet for competitive reasons," said David Cole, director of the nonprofit Altarum Institute's Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Now, they are taking the wraps off."
GM is already suing California in U.S. District Court in Fresno to block imposition of the state's zero-emissions rules. These regulations would require automakers to build thousands of electric vehicles using rechargeable storage-battery technology.
But the auto industry contends that conventional, electric-powered cars are too expensive and too limited in range to be profitably marketed.
To drum up support for its position, GM brought a dozen vehicles to Sacramento, including a diesel car, a fuel-cell powered van and early versions of three types of gasoline-electric hybrid cars that it plans to sell in the next five years.
But the Hy-Wire, the vehicle furthest from reality, was the star of the show.
How it works
The name was created by the son of a GM executive and represents the vehicle's principal characteristics -- hydrogen fuel and drive-by-wire technology.
Gone are the fluid reservoirs and hydraulic pumps and lines that occupy so much space in a contemporary car. They are replaced by aerospace-developed systems that control steering, braking and acceleration electronically. The concept car has no rearview mirror, but rather a trio of small, rear-facing cameras that provide a real-time image on a big screen in the center of the steering console.
Beneath the passenger cabin is an 11-inch-thick aluminum frame that holds all of the electric motors, microprocessors, mechanical parts, fuel-cell components, hydrogen tanks and other systems needed to operate the vehicle. The control wiring is carried in a single harness and permits designers to locate the operating controls virtually anywhere in the wide-open interior.
The compact, flat profile of GM's fuel cell -- about the size of a personal computer -- freed auto designers from the strictures imposed by making room for a hefty internal-combustion engine.
Cole, of the automotive research center, went so far as to call the car's platform "the most revolutionary concept seen in this business in modern times."
Still, there are no guarantees that GM can bring the Hy-Wire to the showroom floor -- especially as fast as it claims.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in developing fuel-cell vehicles is the lack of a nationwide hydrogen-supply system -- akin to a gasoline service-station network -- to power up these advanced cars and trucks. Environmentalists and automakers hope that the Bush administration's commitment for hydrogen fuel research will help overcome this in the next 15 to 20 years.