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Ford's fuel-cell future takes shape

Ford calls its HySeries Edge the world's first driveable plug-in fuel-cell hybrid vehicle, although it's not destined for immediate production.

  • The beginning of morning rush hour, cars on the highway traveling to and from downtown

OAKVILLE–Part of our job as journalists is to separate the engineering wheat from the PR chaff.

Ford made this easier for us by pointing out upfront that what they call the world’s first driveable plug-in fuel-cell hybrid vehicle, based on an Oakville-built Ford Edge Crossover, is not destined for immediate production.

Instead, the so-called HySeries Edge, which was made available for test drives, was being used to illustrate the range of options the company is exploring for propulsion of personal and light commercial vehicles in the future.

Greg Frenette, Ford’s chief engineer for fuel-cell and advanced hybrid-vehicle programs, said that fuel cell-powered vehicles are probably still 15 to 20 years away.

In the interim – through the end of this decade – Ford believes there are still major gains to be made in semi-conventional gasoline powerplants, notably by adapting direct injection and turbocharger technology to gasoline engines.

These are projected to use 20 per cent less fuel and generate 15 per cent fewer carbon dioxide emissions than similarly powerful larger-displacement conventional engines.

If turbo direct injection sounds like a diesel, well, it is. The difference is that direction-injection turbo – what Ford is branding as EcoBoost – operates on engine platforms that are inherently less expensive than diesel, and whose emissions control technology is better understood. This should mean better payout – faster returns on the investment, both for the consumer and the carmaker.

EcoBoost is also a big-volume strategy, which brings benefits to huge numbers of vehicles, not just handfuls, as with hybrids or diesels.

The first of these EcoBoost engines will hit the market next year in the Lincoln MKS all-wheel-drive luxury sedan.

Other near-term fuel-saving emissions-reducing strategies include greater application of hybrid technology. The Escape Hybrid SUV has been upgraded for 2008, but will get an even more efficient powertrain for the 2009 model year. Later this year a hybrid version of the Fusion mid-size sedan joins the party.

There are many examples of what Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s global product development chief, calls the “one per cent areas.”

They include mproved multi-ratio transmissions, such as twin-clutch systems like Volkswagen’s DSG, more American mainstream acceptance of smaller vehicles, increased use of lighter-weight unibody architecture for larger vehicles (hello, Honda Ridgeline pickup truck), improved aerodynamics, and even the application of electric power steering to almost the entire product range – it requires power-robbing boost only when you’re steering, not continuously like hydraulic steering does.

But it all adds up.

In the mid-term – the decade to follow – Frenette expects even wider application of hybrid drive, including the first introduction of plug-in hybrids, which can take advantage of low-cost overnight electric power in most regions to charge the battery, thus reducing the vehicle’s reliance on its on-board fuel-powered generator function.

And that fuel-powered engine could well be diesel-powered or biofuel-powered, rather than running on gasoline.

Weight reductions in the low-hundreds of kilograms range – still hard to achieve with current car-making technology – will also be critical, because of the synergistic follow-on effects: lower weight enables smaller displacement, higher-efficiency engines and lighter ancillary components all around.

Clean diesel, now starting to make an appearance in North America, will grow to perhaps as much as 10 per cent of the market. When something like this HySeries Edge does arrive in showrooms, you’ll probably find the switching painless indeed. I have driven several fuel-cell vehicles, but few seemed as well worked out as this experimental one-off.

You turn the “ignition” key, but of course no engine fires up. Slide the shift lever into drive, push the pedal, and off you go.

It is extremely quiet, and decently quick, although the on-board instrumentation really showed how painful hard acceleration can be – you can almost hear the precious hydrogen being sucked through the fuel cells.

The vehicle has an electric motor at each axle, to provide four-wheel drive as needed. A front-drive only version is also available.

A hydrogen tank runs under the floor like a big fat spine. The refuelling port is on the driver’s side at the rear of the vehicle.

The tank is flanked by a pack of lithium-ion batteries on one side and a set of eight fuel-cell stacks on the other.

The plug-in port is just ahead of the driver’s-side front door, so when you get home you take the extension cord, jam it in, and go hug your kids and get ready for dinner.

The fuel cells come from what used to be the automotive fuel cell division of Ballard Power Systems. But that branch has been spun off and is now owned 50.1 per cent by Daimler, 30 per cent by Ford, with Ballard retaining the remainder.

Assuming a full overnight charge of the battery pack, the Edge would typically run for the first 40 km on the battery only. When the battery is depleted to about 40 per cent of its capacity, the fuel cell fires up and recharges the battery, giving the vehicle an additional 320 km of range.

It isn’t a hybrid drive in the sense we have come to know it, where the wheels can be turned by either or both of the electric motor or the fuel engine. Instead, the fuel cell is simply a portable generator.

In this sense, the HySeries Edge is similar to the Chevy Volt concept – the drive is pure electric; where the electricity comes from is more or less irrelevant. In the Volt, it will come from an on-board gasoline engine. The HySeries Edge is also configured so that the electricity source could be changed to internal combustion without redesigning the entire vehicle.

Frenette believes that hydrogen is the long-term future. The technology is surprisingly close to being ready for prime time. It can be seen in the Edge HySeries, in the fleet of fuel cell-powered Ford Focuses that has accumulated nearly a million kilometres of testing in seven cities around the world over the past three years, and in a fleet of shuttle buses Ford is building that use a development of their V10 Triton truck engine, powered by gaseous hydrogen.

He concedes that the economics and hydrogen delivery infrastructure need developing. There currently is exactly one hydrogen filling station available to the general public in North America – in Washington, D.C.

But if the price of gasoline keeps going up, you may have a fuel-cell vehicle in your driveway sooner than you or Greg Frenette think.

Jim Kenzie is Wheels’ chief automotive correspondent. He can be reached at jim@jimkenzie.com

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