Are Fuel Cells a Viable Power Source?

Do you subscribe to the theory that if it sounds too good to be true then it probably is? If so, you will need a great deal of convincing that fuel cells will soon power commercially available automobiles. Among their too-good-to-be-true attributes are the facts that they produce virtually no emissions but water vapor and they are powered by two of the most abundant elements on Earth.

If you are still among the doubters, a new study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants, a multi-national think-tank and consulting firm, suggests that fuel cell technology will soon become commercially viable for automobiles and a number of other interesting applications, including laptop computers, despite the fact that there are numerous obstacles standing in the way.

Before we examine the study in more detail, let's look more closely at the desirable features of fuel cells. Unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't use combustion to create power. Instead it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be used to power electric motors and electronic equipment or stored in batteries for future use.

What powers a fuel cell? As we said, two of the most abundant elements on the globe: hydrogen and oxygen. It's stuff that is pretty easy to come by, and the bonus is that when the chemical reaction takes place the only byproduct is a little H2O. All the residue created by current internal combustion engines -- you know, the particulates, nitrous oxides, carbon monoxide that give environmentalists nightmares -- just vanish with the use of fuel cells.

As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump (hopefully not literally) before they end up in your garage. As the Roland Berger study intoned, if fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address 12 commercialization challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry.

According to the study, the most difficult among the dozen challenges are low-cost infrastructure, range and power density. The infrastructure question is especially vexing. The current fuel-supply infrastructure is both efficient and convenient, though some consumers have grumbled recently about higher gasoline prices. Conceiving and then building a new fuel-delivery infrastructure that could transport, store and dispense highly volatile hydrogen is a huge hurdle. Ultimately the solution may be the use of the current gasoline fuel dispensing system since hydrogen can be derived from gasoline and other related fuels like ethanol and methanol.

Other challenges identified by the study include cost reduction, component integration complexity and safety issues. Many of these factors are faced by any new technology that potentially can replace an old one.

Despite the hurdles, fuel cells are predicted to enjoy a bright future. The consulting firm has identified three broad markets for fuel cells: portable communications (e.g., laptop computers, cell phones); stationary (e.g., residential back-up, electric utility grid support, hospitals); and transportation (e.g., fork lift trucks, passenger vehicles, buses).

"We will see the launch of fuel cell products in all three major markets during the next four years," said Michael Heidingsfelder, managing partner of Roland Berger in North America. "However, fuel cell products will succeed only if they have a value proposition greater than their competing technologies in any given market."

In the automotive realm, the think-tank says vehicle-makers' commitment is strong. According to the study, automakers and others will invest as much as $5.2 billion in research by 2004 to develop and try to commercialize workable, low-cost fuel cell technology. Despite uncertainties concerning government regulations, technology implementation and customer acceptance, automakers remain steadfast in their pursuit of commercially viable fuel cell vehicles.

"While the next few years will be an exciting time in FC vehicle development, there is certainly no guarantee for success," said Heidingsfelder. "The winner in the automotive fuel cell industry will be one who can build a fuel cell vehicle very close to the sticker price of a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle."

Tom Ripley observes the international energy market and the automobile industry from his home in Villeperce, France.

Car Concepts 2001

Many people complain that today's cars all look alike. Now car manufacturers are trying to change that. As vehicle technology becomes more and more standardized throughout the industry, the new battleground is moving into the styling studios. Or as Chevrolet General Manager Kurt Ridder recently told us, one of the last ways left to differentiate is "how you bend the metal."

With that in mind the concept vehicles shown at the major auto shows in Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York are even more important indications of where the industry is going...and what you can expect to see in your driveway in the coming years. So, for your dancing and listening pleasure, here are some of the top concepts, accompanied by DT's commentary.

Audi Project Steppenwolf
So Audi has the annoying habit of using lower-case letters on its proprietary quattro system; that doesn't mean we don't like its view of how the Audi development engineers visualize a high-performance all-around vehicle for the compact class.

Dubbed "Project Steppenwolf" ("Get your motor running; head out on the highway...") this three-door four-seater provides evidence of the kind of "Vorsprung durch Technik" (Strength through Joy, no, sorry, we mean Advancement through Technology) that Audi says has become synonymous with the name Audi.

Its engineers set the goal that Project Steppenwolf should be able to master rough terrain in extreme conditions just as effortlessly as high-speed driving, feeling equally at home in the outback as on the highway. Not surprisingly, the concept vehicle makes use of Audi's quattro expertise and experience with height-adjustable air suspension.

The quattro permanent four-wheel drive system ensures maximum traction and excellent directional stability in all conditions and over all types of terrain. The vehicle is predominantly a front-driver unless there is wheel slippage. Then the electronically controlled Haldex clutch distributes power between the front and rear wheels as required. In addition, the Electronic Differential Lock (EDL) distributes torque between the wheels on one axle. And the Electronic Stability Program (ESP) helps the driver to remain in control if confronted with potentially critical driving situations at the limit.

According to Audi, Project Steppenwolf's engine, a 3.2-liter V-6 developing 225 horsepower, will accelerate the car from zero to 62 mph (that's 100 km/h) in under eight seconds. Its top speed is well over 143 mph (230 km/h), but apparently not as high as 144.

One of the special features of Project Steppenwolf is its four-level air suspension with an adjustment range of 2.4 inches. This Audi system qualifies the compact three-door model as an all-around vehicle in a class of its own, giving ample ground clearance of up to 8.8 inches for difficult terrain while offering a low center of gravity and optimum aerodynamics at high speed.

Acura RS-X
Don't be surprised that the Acura RS-X looks like a production car. It is a close facsimile of the Integra replacement that will bow later this year.

The RS-X prototype utilizes advanced new engine technology in combination with rigid unit-body construction, a highly aerodynamic body and sport-tuned chassis to deliver exhilarating style and performance in a luxury-class sports coupe. It is also one concept car that meets Low Emissions Vehicle (LEV) standards.

Under the hood is an advanced new-generation 2.0-liter, 16-valve DOHC engine with i-VTEC "intelligent" valve-control that produces approximately 200 horsepower. Honda's patented i-VTEC combines VTEC (Variable Valve Timing and Lift Electronic Control) with new VTC (Variable Timing Control) to continuously adjust camshaft phase for enhanced performance and efficiency across a broad power band. Power is transmitted to the front wheels via a close ratio six-speed manual transmission.

The RS-X prototype's exterior features short front and rear overhangs, sweeping curves and sharply chiseled accent lines. It is shod with 18-inch BBS light alloy wheels and 225/45R18 Michelin tires. Large, bright multi-reflector headlights, deeply beveled chin spoiler and signature Acura grille highlight a distinctive front fascia. The rear decklid features a brow that extends above the four-lamp taillights and is complemented by a large-mouth chrome exhaust finisher.

The RS-X interior features a cockpit-style driving environment with driver-oriented instruments and control surfaces, whatever that means. Interior highlights include perforated black leather trim, deeply contoured Recaro sport seats, small-diameter steering wheel, short-throw gearshift lever, and silver-colored reverse inset gauge cluster. The production version of Acura's RS-X will debut at the Greater New York Auto Show in April. Don't be shocked if you can't tell the difference between it and this one.

Boston native Tom Ripley observes the international automotive scene from his home in Villeperce, France.

Dodge Super8 Hemi
Do you remember when big American sedans also offered some performance potential? Well, apparently the folks at Dodge do, too. The Dodge Super8 Hemi concept car brings the return of such former American car staples as a big V-8 engine and rear-wheel-drive. Sadly, though, we have heard rumors that a production version of this well-executed throwback might have already fallen victim to DaimlerChrysler's financial woes. That's a pity because there's a lot to like about the Super8 Hemi, especially its tall stance that enhances visibility, comfort, space and ease of entry and exit for both driver and passengers.

"The Dodge Super8 Hemi embodies the culture and essence of American optimism," said Freeman Thomas, vice president - advanced design strategy, DaimlerChrysler Corporation. "The concept's bold, in-your-face design shows our ability to embrace our love for the sedan and meld it with invigorating execution and technological advancement."

We think American car fans will salivate over the prototype 353 cubic inch (5.7-liter) pushrod V-8 engine featuring hemispherical combustion chambers and two spark plugs per cylinder. (No Euro-sissy overhead cams for this American beauty!) Offering an estimated 353 horsepower and 395 pound-feet of torque, channeled to the rear driving wheels, the engine can move the Super8 Hemi from a standstill to 60 mph in less than six seconds and clock a top speed of 154 mph.

The concept car has a chiseled body and rides on a long wheelbase of 117.4 inches with a similarly wide-track stance. The so-called "Passenger Priority" design utilizes higher-than-normal seating to give driver and passengers more of an in-control feeling compared to other sedans. The rear passengers sit higher than the front passengers, creating an automotive form of theater seating, so the Super8 Hemi is great for drive-in movies.

The interior pays homage to the legendary vehicles of the 1950s, featuring a combination of brushed and painted aluminum gauges and trim. The concept's ornate instrument panel recalls the bygone era as do the bench seats and the absence of a b-pillar. Can you say hardtop sedan?

Despite the retro touches the Super8 Hemi is stuffed with silicon (not silicone, silly.) The vehicle-internal computing architecture consists of four Single Board Computers that each run a certified standard Java Virtual Machine (JVM) on top of a Linux operation system. The software architecture for the in-vehicle computers is based on a 100 percent Java device platform called "deviceTop" from the Espial Group. The Infotronic system is directed by a voice recognition system or through its liquid crystal display integrated into the instrument panel. The use of JavaCard technology allows for personalized access to the system.

Voice commands allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road while controlling the vehicle's audio system, climate control, phone and security systems as well as allow access to the driver's smart home appliances or home security system. For rear occupants, two LCD touch screens on articulating arms are mounted to the backrests of the front seats, enabling a fully Internet-accessible in-car environment, so you can log onto Driving Today on the road.

Satellite Radio

Does it annoy you when you press the scan button on your car radio and it whirls through the scores of stations but doesn’t land on anything that appeals to you? Does it bug you that music stations tend to play the same songs over and over, completely missing what you want to hear? Does it drive you nuts when you are enjoying a certain radio station and the signal fades, skips or is covered with static? If you’ve answered yes to any of these questions and you have an extra ten bucks a month folded away in your pocket, you could be a strong candidate for pay-radio or, as its purveyors would rather portray it, satellite-delivered subscriber radio. It’s coming sooner than you think.

By now, many people have experienced the joys of satellite-delivered television. Getting some 200 news, sports and movie channels via DirecTV has many consumers spitting on their former cable TV providers and turning up their noses at over-the-air reception through conventional TV antennas. Soon, two very similar and highly competitive direct-satellite radio services will offer a wide range of programming choices beamed directly to your car. The race is on between these services to see which will hit the market first. And these aren’t penny-ante enterprises. Both services have some heavyweight backing in the form of auto manufacturers like Ford, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler plus the support of a wide variety of consumer electronics manufacturers who are gearing up to provide the necessary hardware.

At this stage in the race Sirius Satellite Radio is an odds-on bet to beat its Federal Communications Commission-licensed competitor, XM Radio, to establish consumer service. Sirius already has two satellites in orbit with a third satellite scheduled to go up on November 30th. The company announced plans to begin broadcasting its audio entertainment service in January, but has postponed that date and is expected to hold off on broadcasting until some receivers are actually in consumer hands. That could come as soon as the second or third quarter of next year. In fact, essentially no American consumer currently owns equipment that would allow the reception of satellite-delivered programming, so the race to deliver a service in operation first might well be moot.

How do you get this commercial-free panacea for the radio blues? Sirius has alliances to install three-band (AM/FM/SAT) radios in Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Mercedes, Mazda, Jaguar and Volvo vehicles as well as Freightliner and Sterling heavy trucks. XM Radio is closely allied with General Motors. Both have established alliances with numerous electronics manufacturers to market satellite-ready radios and satellite-adapters that will allow radios in existing vehicles to receive satellite broadcasts.

Technically, the systems the companies will use are similar, though far from identical, and compatibility of the two systems could become an issue. Sirius Radio’s satellites are being deployed in inclined elliptical orbits that ensure elevation angles of 60 degrees or greater over the continental United States, allowing for maximum line-of-sight from the satellites to Sirius receivers. This means that the satellites will be at steep angles above your car, offering the best chance of reception when you’re driving between buildings or in valleys or canyons. To augment the service, Sirius is installing a series of approximately 100 terrestrial repeaters (in other words, radio broadcasting on the ground) in urban and mountainous areas to augment the satellite signal and ensure unobstructed coast-to-coast reception for U.S. motorists.

In contrast to Sirius Radio’s elliptical orbiting satellites, XM Radio will use two high-powered geo-stationary satellites positioned above the U.S. The company says by using the two highest power communications satellites ever built, each with the same coast-to-coast footprint, it will ensure maximum signal and system reliability. It, too, will use ground repeaters in difficult signal areas. Both services claim they will offer digital CD-quality sound.

Though the two companies will use satellite technology that differs, the programming they intend to offer is remarkably similar. Sirius says it will directly broadcast up to 100 channels of digital-quality programming to motorists throughout the continental United States for a monthly subscription fee of $9.95. Of these, 50 channels are slated to be commercial-free music with individual channels devoted to various genres. With 50 music channels to fill, the programming is expected to be more varied than the three or four basic formats that now dominate commercial radio. For example, if you’re a fan of reggae, you can tune to an all-reggae channel. You want Fifties hits? You can set your dial to that channel and not worry about hearing hits from the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties or Nineties, each of which will come on its own channel. No, Sirius is not yet planning an all-polka all-the-time channel, but you will likely find a channel that satisfies your preferences more than the commercial stations do, which are, by definition, trying to capture the largest audiences possible.

Sirius Radio also claims it won’t be a jukebox simply playing songs (but what would be so wrong with that?) or a re-hash of what traditional radio stations are already doing. Instead it plans to deliver original music programming, presented by expert hosts who will enhance the listening experience with insights and information about the music. Quaintly using dot-com-speak, it says it has “created alliances with critically acclaimed artists and on-air personalities, including Sting, Grandmaster Flash, and MC Lyte, who will have regularly scheduled programs on Sirius Radio.” Lest you think that Sirius music won’t have its serious side, the company also has a strategic alliance with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to music, Sirius plans “up to 50” channels of non-music programming. While the company has signed programming talent to handle the music side of its business, it has teamed up with a panoply that includes CNBC, National Public Radio, Outdoor Life Networks, Sports Byline USA, Speedvision, USA Networks/SCI FI Channel, Classic Radio, Hispanic Radio Network and the BBC for talk and information.

XM Radio’s planned offerings are very similar, at least on the music side. XM claims that “you’ll have as many as six Rock formats to choose from, ranging from Classic Hard Rock to New Alternative Rock.” As with Sirius Radio, Oldies will be programmed by the decade. And you’ll also have the choice of Show Tunes, Blues, Folk, Classical, Fusion, Bluegrass, Gospel, American Standards, New Age, Urban—each on its own channel.

When it comes to the non-music channels, XM Radio also has partnered with a bunch of media names. Included in its partner roster for the news side are USA Today, BBC World Service, PBS’s News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Bloomberg News Radio, and CNN News Group. In sports it has teamed with NASCAR, One-on-One Sports, and CNN/Sports Illustrated. It will bring weather to you 24/7 via The Weather Channel, and you can also dial into Black Entertainment Television, Radio One, AsiaOne, CNN en Espanol, and Christian-oriented broadcasting from Salem Communications.

Besides the differing content, especially on the non-music side, another key difference is the degree of “commercial interruption” each service will allow. Sirius plans to have its music channels run completely commercial-free, and it has said it might insert up to four minutes per hour into its talk programming. XM Radio has been a bit more vague, but it has been reported that it will program as many as 12 minutes-per-hour of commercials into its non-music programs while also leaving open the possibility of running commercials on its music channels. How potential subscribers will react to paying for commercial-free radio and then hear it laced with commercial spots, just like the local broadcasters, may be a point of contention.

In fact, it’s anyone’s guess if there really is a market for these services, despite the heavyweight backing. Though the prospect of commercial-free music has its positive sides, the same aspects that make local radio somewhat irritating are also its strengths. In a world of increasingly national media, the bulk of commercial radio is still local. That means it is full of local news, local gossip, local sports, local traffic and, yes, local advertising. Skeptics suggest that commuters might find the absence of local news and traffic reports too big a loss to accept; especially when they are shelling out cash for something they use to get for free. Proponents of satellite radio reply that what they intend to deliver for pennies a day will be much better than what commercial radio listeners get right now, and they are willing to bet people will find value from the new services. In that opinion, they have precedent. After all, skeptics also insisted that cable TV and, decades later, satellite TV, would never fly.

"Pay for TV? Be serious!" they said.

Well, my work here is done. I’m retiring to my $40-a-month-for-200-TV-channels service.


Nerad’s syndicated radio program, "America on the Road" isn’t on satellite radio, at least, not yet.

Pilot to Co-Pilot

If you believe the current crop of TV ads, you have to own a new Lexus or a Beamer to have access to bleeding edge car navigation technology. Truth is, for as little as a few hundred bucks, you can have a sophisticated GPS (Global Positioning System) unit that will even read your travel directions for you.

There haven't been many earth-shattering advances in consumer GPS technology over the past year, but the systems have gotten much cheaper, smaller, and a number of useful features have been added. Here are a few of our favorite units, from the cheapest to the most expensive.

DeLorme's Earthmate is a tiny box about the size of a cigarette pack that plugs into your laptop, Palm Pilot or Windows CE handheld. Once connected to your computer and the included mapping software, the Earthmate begins to scan the skies to "acquire" three of more orbiting GPS satellites. The Earthmate uses these sats to fix your position and to display your location on a digital map. As you move, a series of arrow trails on the map show you where you're headed. The laptop version of the Earthmate's mapping software can actually speak directions to you (in that synthesized voice that sounds like Stephen J. Hawking is your co-pilot). For the Palm and WinCE versions, you have to use a special program to transfer the maps for the areas you're going to be traveling through from your PC to your handheld. And Stephen J. Hawking doesn't come along for the ride. One of the best features of the Earthmate is that it's portable so you can use it in your car with a laptop and then use it in the great outdoors via your handheld computer. The Earthmate for laptops is $200. The Earthmate with all the additional hardware and software for Palms and WinCE handhelds is $220.

Garmin, a pioneer in consumer GPS, sells a wide variety of handheld and dash-mounted navigation systems. StreetPilot ($500) is a (removable) dash-mounted unit that has maps of all the major US highways, rivers and lakes built into it. Additional maps can be purchased on CD-ROM and transferred to the StreetPilot via your PC. The screen on the StreetPilot is, unfortunately, black and white which can make the maps hard to read at a glance. For an additional two hundred dollars, the ColorMap version can help brighten and clarify your routes.

If you're more interested in street cred than penny pinching, the Clarion AutoPC will not only help you navigate, but will diagnose your car troubles, keep your address book and nab your email. All of this built into a high-quality car stereo radio/CD player. The problem with the AutoPC is the price. The basic unit sells for around $1300. That basically buys you the stereo and the base Windows CE computer. All of the other features, including the GPS navigation, will cost you from $60 to $400. It's also a Windows machine and an early edition of a new technology, so it's not without its limitations and frustrations.

Regardless of which GPS device you buy, you can't get help but feel like you've truly entered the future as you tool down the highway following your progress on an on-board computer. These navigation systems are far from fool proof though, so whatever you do, don't ever forget to read a good ol' "tree skin" street map.


-- Gareth Branwyn

The Genica MPTrip MP3 CD Player

It plays CDs. It plays MP3 files. It plays CDs filled with MP3 files. It's the size of a Sony Discman and sells for as little as $99. And as of May 2000, it's been available in the United States.

Enter the Genica MPTrip Portable MP3 Disc Player, which is perhaps the most important innovation in MP3 playback since the advent of the MP3 format itself - a device which does not depend on expensive flash memory cards or a hard drive to store MP3 files. Instead, you can fill up any blank, recordable CD with standard MP3 files, pop it in the MPTrip, and play, fast forward, or move backward through tracks just as you would with any standard music CD. Except now the CDs you make can contain as many as 512 tracks, compared with an average of 12 tracks on a standard music CD - though to preserve stereo, music CD-quality audio, you'll probably max out at around 150 separate songs on a single MP3 CD.

Genica's product definitely has its advantages and disadvantages, but the former far outweigh the latter. On the bright side, my MPTrip worked right out of the box, instantly recognizing all of the 130 songs on a cheap CompUSA CD-R I had burned just for test purposes. It has a clear but simple LCD display for track number and duration (but not name) information. Critically, the MPTrip has run without problems since I purchased it, has a 50-second anti-skip feature which virtually insures against jarring, and allows me to use one of five combined bass and treble level presets. The headphones are inexpensive but completely reasonable, the power supply works well, and the MPTrip can automatically power-up rechargeable batteries if I wanted to use them. It also boasts 500 seconds of recording capability if a microphone is plugged in, a feature which I personally found no use for.

On the flip side, the MPTrip has an unmistakable but not overwhelming feeling of having been made inexpensively. The buttons and dials aren't as pleasant to the touch or eye as what you'd find on an average portable CD player, and none of the markings on the MPTrip (plus its packaging and manual) has been implemented professionally. Two different buttons on the MPTrip, for example, say "Play;" one says "Play/Pause," the other says "Play/Mode." And though I almost never have to read product manuals, MPTrip's manual is so threadbare and poorly written as to make highly difficult a fundamental feature of the unit - finding a way to skip easily through 150 separate music tracks without pressing the "Next" button, say, 75 times, to get to a favorite song. The unit can do it, but you need to use three different buttons and really screw around. A better manual would have helped - something that was not a major priority for a device that bears no manufacturer's markings or indications of country of origin, even on its packaging.

Making up for any of the problems is the price. The MPTrip retails for between $99 to $115 online, which for a first-generation MP3-CD product frankly makes me highly willing to tolerate rough edges. The important features are all there: the quality of the output is impressive, it plays even cheap recordable CDs full of MP3s right out of the box, and it's fully portable. Several other companies promised to have similar devices on the market before Genica, but they failed - this is the only portable MP3 CD player on the market as of this writing. Especially considering the price, the Genica MPTrip the single best MP3 product released to date, eliminating all of the memory limitations of Creative Labs' and Diamond Multimedia's predecessor MP3 devices. And surely next year's version - say nothing of its competitors - will be even better.


-- Jeremy Horwitz