EVAA 2001 - Fuel Cell Showcase
By Bill Moore
Wandering through the exhibition hall at the Sacramento Convention Center, it quickly becomes very obvious that the 2001 Electric Transportation Industry Conference has clearly shifted focus. When I first began covering these events some four years ago now, battery electric vehicles were in the forefront of technology development.
As we enter 2002, battery EVs are now seen, at least by the big carmakers, as merely technologic stepping stones to the ultimate goal of powering cars with fuel cells. And while some critics see carmaker infatuation with fuel cells as a "fig leaf" to keep from having to build battery electric cars in California, others will argue just as strongly that a fuel cell is, in fact, a battery of sorts, one that can be refueled. This will, they claim, solve the charging problem and - - provided we can find a way to conveniently and safely store sufficient hydrogen - - solve the range problem of battery electrics.
A Showcase For Fuel Cells
Therefore carmakers used the conference and exhibition, which was held in the same city as the California Fuel Cell Partnership, to highlight their progress on fuel cells. Here's a short list of fuel cell vehicles on display during the conference:
- 1 DaimlerChrysler "Natrium" Minivan
- 3 DaimlerChrysler A-Class
- 1 Ford Focus and P2000
- 1 Nissan Xterra
- 2 Honda FCEVs
- 1 Hyundai Santa Fe
- 1 GM Fuel Cell S10
- 1 Toyota Highlander
Of course, there were a handful of battery electric vehicles on display, as well. These included the rather radical Tango, AC Propulsion's "vehicle-to-grid" VW Beetle, the Ford Th!nk city and Emotion Mobility's MCC smart conversion. However, most of the battery electrics were neighborhood-class EVs, including a veritable fleet of GEM, Club Cars and two stylish Lidos.
Missing were the venerable GM EV1 and the Honda EV+, neither of which are in production any longer. Instead, it was left to the much-acclaimed Toyota RAV4 EV alone to offer potential retail customers any glimmer of hope for a true, four-passenger, freeway-class, battery EV. And in this respect, the folks at Toyota came through by announcing that beginning next month, consumers in California will be able to purchase or lease the $42,000 sport utility.
Between a $9,000 state tax credit and a $3,000 federal credit, the price of the vehicle could drop to about $30,000, Toyota estimates. This is roughly the replacement cost of the advanced NiMH battery pack in the vehicle, so I hope that either the cost of batteries comes down, the battery pack lasts a really long time, and preferably both.
Honda used the conference to officially debut the gasoline-electric hybrid Civic, a car they believe will get as much as 50 mpg, while offering roomy, five passenger comfort. This is the second Honda production vehicle to offer IMA (integrated motor assist) and marks the first time a hybrid-electric drive will be featured in a mainline vehicle like the Civic. Toyota engineers were clearly concerned about the potential impact of this new competitor on Prius sales, some 70,000 of which are now on the roads of Europe, Japan and North America. They were busily snapping photos and furiously taking technical notes, especially during the Ride&Drive.
Unlike similar conferences in the past, I decide to not attend the workshops but instead spend most of my time down on the exhibit floor talking to people, shooting video and taking digital photos.
I have to be honest though and say that I didn't have enough time to talk to everyone I wanted to see, especially the developers of the Tango, a tandem two-seater with tire-blistering performance of zero-to-sixty in 4 seconds. And every time I got by the V2G Beetle, there was either no one around or the representatives from AC Propulsion were busy with other delegates.
I also missed out on talking to the folks at Millennium Cell, the developers of the sodium borohydride hydrogen generation system used in DaimlerChrysler's experimental "Natrium" fuel cell minivan featured this week on EV World.
I did have the opportunity to spend some quality time with Carl Perry, the president and CEO of Enova Systems and their Chairman of the Board, the dapper, bow-tied Anthony Rawlinson. I found both men congenial and very upbeat about the company and its prospects. They talked at length about their partnership with Ford and Hyundai. Carl even intimated that they would soon be announcing a third alliance with yet another major carmaker. [For the record, I own 1,000 shares of the company, which is currently trading as a penny stock at 16 cents a share.]
It turns out that not only is the drive system in the Ford Th!nk city an Enova Systems product, but so is the drive in the Hyundai Santa Fe fuel cell SUV, as well as a number of battery electric versions in use in Hawaii. Both Carl and Anthony invited me to visit their facility in Torrance and then fly to Hawaii to see what they're doing there. (They even offered to pay my way, so if the offer is still good, count me in, fellas!) Watch in the next few weeks for a video of Carl and his chief technologist, Dr. Abas Goodarzi explain their part in the Santa Fe fuel cell SUV.
While PEM-based fuel cells clearly have the lead in automotive applications, one little company, PowerZinc of Shanghai, China was demonstrating a powerful little zinc air fuel cell for use in motor scooters. Richard Yang, the CEO, explained to me that they are looking at Taiwan as a potential market for their technology. Up to this time, zinc air batteries have been held back by their need for an extensive and expensive recycle/reprocessing infrastructure. The spent stacks must be removed and reprocessed. PowerZinc has a developed an interesting "pocket" technology that enables the quick removable and replacement of the spent zinc anodes. Their idea is to develop small zinc air fuel cells for the 14 million motor scooters in Taiwan, an island nation with a population of 22 million people.
I tried out their prototype scooter and found it powerful and responsive. PowerZinc estimates a scooter equipped with two of their stacks can travel more than 100 miles before needing to have its zinc anodes replaced. They envision a system of exchange locations throughout Taiwanese neighborhoods where a scooter owner could swap out the spent cells in just a couple minutes time and be back on the road.
Another fun scooter I got to try out during the conference belongs to a small start-up based, surprisingly, here in Nebraska and founded by an old acquaintance of mine with whom I had lost contact a number of years ago.
Advanced Electrical Systems of Fremont, Nebraska was founded last year by Charles Hoffman, a successful, Silicon Valley entrepreneur who moved back to Nebraska to raise his family. A graduate of Stanford University, Charlie met a Hungarian scientist named Andras Fazakas through a fellow Stanford alum, Jim Amann who lives in Switzerland.
A devotee of Nicolai Tessla, the chain smoking Fazakas seems to be in perpetual motion. In his Budapest lab, he has come up with a surprisingly simple charging strategy that might just make fast charging of any battery practical and affordable. Hoffman has raised about $1.5 million in venture capital to develop the technology. I urged him to attend the conference and from his reports, it was a success with a number of promising leads coming from the golf car and mining vehicle sectors of the EV industry. Dr. Malcolm Currie even walked by one day and offered to help the company develop and sell its demonstration scooter, although the company currently has no plans to get into the scooter business.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised that a company like AES would start in Nebraska. After all Lester Electronics, the predominate charger manufacturer for the golf car industry is located in nearby Lincoln, as is Lincoln Composites, makers of the high-strength, compressed natural gas cylinders found in the DaimlerChrysler PowerBox concept vehicle. It's exciting to see another Nebraska-based company hoping to establish a presence in the EV industry, especially one founded by an old friend.
This year, the event organizers gave out some really nice prizes including a electric bicycles and a GEM NEV. But you had to be present to win, as Toyota's Dave Hermance discovered when he won a Ford Th!nk electric bicycle, only to have it given to someone else because he wasn't in the conference hall at the time. The same fate didn't behalf Bill Morrison, who won the GEM neighborhood EV, and herein lies an interesting story.
I congratulated Bill on his winning the GEM, explaining that just for half-a-heartbeat I thought I had won it. He explained that just before the conference he had met with his board of directors and discussed how to acquire a vehicle like the GEM. It seems Bill had worked for Curtis Instruments, a major supplier of EV control systems for golf cars and EV conversions. He recently left Curtis and founded EV Control Systems with the intention of competing with Curtis. After winning the GEM, he immediately called his board to give them the good news!
And then there is "Electric Louie" Finkle!
Louie Finkle is a bright, ambitious young man who seems more into Rock-n-Roll than EVs. He has already made his mark in the business world with a successful fire equipment company in Southern California. He is using his personal wealth to advance the cause of small electric vehicles through the establishment of a new sport he calls Velectric racing, short for velodrome racing using electric-powered street luges. Check out his web site, Exkate.com to learn more. He wants to pick up where Zappy scooters leave off, getting young people as excited about this new "extreme sport" as they are about snowboards and skateboards. I plan to interview Louie in the near future so watch here for that show.
Fuel Cell Standouts
After the conference official closed on Thursday, the California Fuel Cell Partnership invited attendees to a day of Ride&Drives of the latest in fuel cell vehicle technology. I still not exactly sure in what part of Sacramento the partnership is located, since both I and Dave Packard got turned around, eventually finding the block-long facility after spotting one of the fuel cell cars and following it back to the headquarters.
I can proudly say that I either rode in or drove nearly every fuel cell vehicle on display, as well as taking a spin behind the wheel of AC Propulsion's all-electric VW Golf, which goes like the proverbial "bat-out-of-hell."
The same can't be said for several of the fuel cell prototypes, especially the Nissan Xterra, which definitely needs work on the acceleration front. But that being said, these are prototypes and not production vehicles. The whole point of the fuel cell partnership is to provide a proving ground for this developing technology.
Without question, the stellar performer of the group was the Toyota Highlander, which nearly everyone I spoke with agreed was the standout vehicle. It seems to offer everything you'd want in a SUV and if you didn't know it was powered by a fuel cell, you'd think it was a standard, off-the-lot model. It's fuel cell system, which runs on compressed hydrogen at 3,500 psi, is quiet and professionally packaged. Our Japanese driver estimated it had a range of nearly 200 miles, though we were working with somewhat of a language barrier.
The other standout vehicle was the Hyundai Santa Fe, jointly developed by Hyundai, Enova Systems and International Fuel Cells. While the packaging wasn't as well done as the Highlander and a high frequency hum inside the cabin was really annoying, what makes this vehicle a standout is its performance and time to development. According to Carl Perry, his team put this car together in just six months time, winning two awards during the Challenge Bibendum 2001 in the process.
DaimlerChrysler has to be commended for offering more types of fueling options than any other manufacturer. Their trio NECAR A-Class Mercedes ran on compressed hydrogen, cryogenic hydrogen and liquid methanol, respectively. Disappointingly, the Natrium minivan wasn't available to drive. I got to drive one of the NECARs and found it acceptable in performance, though not outstanding. Consumers are going to want more "umph" in their vehicles than these cars currently provide. However, I should point out that unlike the Toyota Highlander, which uses a hybrid-fuel cell drive that relies on battery assist similar to the Prius, two of the older model NECAR4s rely solely on the electrical output of the fuel cell stack. The newer NECAR5, which runs on liquid methanol uses a hybrid-battery arrangement similar to the Highlander.
The Honda FCX-V3 and V4 are based on the EV+ platform and seemed to offer performance comparable to the NECARs, if not slightly better. The Nissan Xterra suffers from having to pull such a heavy frame around, as the Nissan engineer readily admitted. GM did not have any fuel cell vehicles available to drive.
The one car I didn't ride in was the Ford Focus because I had already driven it in Detroit last summer. In the sedan class, it is the clear leader and shows that Ford has come far along the fuel cell development path in a fairly short period of time.
I am always struck by the pure white plastic tailpipe of the Th!nk-powered Focus and its P2000 predecessor dripping clear water droplets. I look at the blackened exhaust pipe of my Honda Insight - - currently considered the world's cleanest gasoline production car according to ACEEE - - and long for the time when I can be driving one of these remarkable vehicles.
What's my best guess when this will be? Not by 2004, that much is certain. Maybe 2010 or 2015. There are still numerous engineering issues to be resolved and a fueling infrastructure to be built. One possible approach to solving the fueling question is to use our current gasoline station system. Instead of putting gasoline reformers on the cars, we ought to investigate installing them at service stations where gasoline, or natural gas, can be reformed into hydrogen. The new generation of 5,000 or 10,000 psi hydrogen storage tanks on board the vehicle would give a car nearly the same range as a gasoline model. This approach would serve as an interim pathway towards the eventual development of a pure hydrogen infrastructure. If we took this path, we could see fuel cell cars perhaps sooner than 2010.
One final observation. Before leaving Sacramento, I got an email from a public relations firm housed in the building next to my hotel. It turns out they represent TexacoChevron and one of the account representatives wanted to meet me in an effort to get me to do a story or interview on Texaco's efforts to develop cleaner fuels and better gasoline engines. I inviting him over and we had coffee in the hotel lobby. I listened to his pitch and gave him my reasons why EV World believes electric-drive technology is the future in motion. After a cordial hour of conversation, he left me his information packet and we parted friends.
When I start getting approached by oil company publicists, I know EV World must be having an impact. That's a nice feeling!
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