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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Full Speed Ahead

Air Date: Week of

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GM unveiled its prototype fuel-cell car, the Hy-Wire, at the Paris Motor show a few days ago. Host Steve Curwood discusses the future of automobiles with Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis.


CURWOOD: Now, how about a car with no front engine, where the windshield extends all the way to the fender? And, instead of a steering wheel and foot pedals, there’s a joystick to control the vehicle. And, oh yeah, it’s powered by a hydrogen fuel cell.

A few days ago at the Paris Motor Show, General Motors unveiled its car of the future. It’s called the Hy-wire, and demonstrates how fuel cell technology frees up engineers to redesign cars completely and curb pollution.

Dan Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis, joins me to talk about this next generation of autos. He says carmakers call fuel cells the industry’s "holy grail.’

SPERLING: And they say that because, to use another expression of theirs, "it takes cars out of the environmental equation." Then you have truly a zero emission car. The greenhouse gases are reduced. You get rid of the oil consumption.

But, it’s even much better than that for them. And that is, that it really fits the technology pathway they’re on. It allows them to have an electric vehicle without worrying about the batteries. So now, they have an electric infrastructure on the vehicles. They can get rid of all of those mechanical systems and hydraulic systems that are heavy and inefficient, and sometimes unreliable, and replace them with—hy-wire, electronic systems.

They also, it opens up the design envelope. Now, vehicles are built now around the mechanical drive train, around the gas tank, the radiator. Now, you essentially open up the design envelope and can rethink the entire design of a car. And probably, best of all, now you have a power, all this extra power on the vehicle that you can use for all kinds of new consumer services and accessories.

For instance, you can use it for backup power to your house. We can use it for going out in the countryside and having a power source for running tools or television, or whatever. You can use it on the vehicle for high-powered devices, such as a coffeepot or a microwave. And there’s really no showstoppers we see. And there’s no large political constituency fighting it.

CURWOOD: Why is there no large constituency fighting it?

SPERLING: Well, the car industry thinks it’s a great idea. The energy industry, the oil companies, they’re ambivalent about it because whatever fuel it runs on, they know they’ll be supplying it. And the environmental community thinks it’s a good idea.

CURWOOD: And so what’s the wait?

SPERLING: Well, there’s three issues. One is, it is a brand new technology? There’s only been really serious investment in it for about ten years or so, you know, compared to over a hundred years with internal combustion engine. So, there’s a lot of engineering that needs to be done to bring the cost down.

There is the question of fuel. And that may be the biggest roadblock right now. And that’s because they run best on hydrogen, but there’s no hydrogen fuel stations out there. And energy companies don’t want to build the hydrogen stations until there’s cars. And the car companies don’t want to build the vehicles until there are fuels out there. And there is a safety perception that has to be dealt with. And there’s a safety problem as well as perception. It’s probably safer than gasoline, but nonetheless, it does present some safety hazards that have to be thought through and dealt with. And people have to learn how to work with a different kind of fuel.

CURWOOD: Tell me about some of the specific technological innovations that are going on as well with internal combustion engines. I mean, I understand that Nissan and Honda are putting vehicles on the road, or shortly, they will put vehicles on the road, with just about no emissions.

SPERLING: Well, you know, the industry has made tremendous improvements in vehicles over the last couple of decades in terms of conventional parts of the technology, but, also, in terms of reducing the emissions. And it is true that the new vehicles have emissions that are essentially near zero. There is some question about whether they’ll remain at near zero as they age and get older, and people abuse the vehicles and don’t maintain them well. But, in any case, they’re much more low-emitting than they ever were in the past.

CURWOOD: In what way do these new vehicles address the question of carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas?

SPERLING: Air quality improvements for vehicles have been a tremendous success story over the last couple of decades. Energy efficiency and energy improvements have not. Today’s vehicles, as a whole, new vehicles, are about the same fuel consumption as 20 years ago. Now, the reality is though, that there’s been tremendous innovation in improving the technical efficiency of vehicles in terms of the work you get out of a particular engine and a certain amount of horsepower.

But, all of those efficiency improvements have been used to make the vehicles bigger, more powerful, to give them more accessories like four-wheel drive. So, the big picture idea here is that the automotive industry is on the cusp of a technological revolution. There are all types of innovation, technical innovation, happening, tremendous engineering improvements. But we have a choice now. Will those improvements be used to make the vehicles even bigger, even more powerful, even more power consuming accessories? Or, will we take those innovations and improvements and direct them to create vehicles that are more sustainable, that are more-- have lower emissions, use less energy.

CURWOOD: Dan Sperling is the director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. Thanks for speaking with me.

SPERLING: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

CURWOOD: Coming up, we meet a psychologist who’s for the birds. You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Pell Mell, "Revival," INTERSTATE (Geffen Records, 1995)]



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