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Seeing past hydrogen

Predicting the future is full of uncertainty, just ask those whose job it is to forecast the weather and the financial markets.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

VANCOUVER–Predicting the future is full of uncertainty – just ask those whose job it is to forecast the weather and the financial markets.

But when the prediction is for what combination of energy source and propulsion system will power the world’s automobile fleet into the middle of the century, there is bound to be a wide range of conflicting visions and opinions.

That was certainly the case as the world’s environmental technology community came together in Vancouver for the 10th biennial Globe Conference on Business and the Environment.

For the first time, all things automotive and transportation-related were spun off into their own subconference called the AutoFutureTech Summit.

Two years ago at Globe 2006, the future of the automobile was definitely seen to be the hydrogen fuel cell.

Several manufacturers had prototypes on hand to drive, there was a hydrogen refuelling station to use, and visions of the vaunted Hydrogen Highway were on everybody’s mind.

Not so this year. There was one car to drive that we knew of; no filling station for it, and the fuel cell hysteria, or as one observer put it, the “hydrogen mirage,” had subsided. The new buzz word was “electrification,” which, of course, encompasses hydrogen fuel cells, but so much more as well.

The Hydrogen Highway, that seemingly premature plan to have filling stations up-and-down the West Coast, still exists, but it will likely be at least 2010, Olympic time in Vancouver, before we see much of a push in that direction.

Considering you can’t buy a hydrogen-fuelled vehicle yet, there is little use for filling stations, and vice versa.

If there was one thing that all the experts agreed on, it is that options must be developed to greatly reduce the use of petroleum products in personal transportation, for all the reasons we know about.

Some of those options are already in limited use. They all have limitations, and they are all subject to the external factors listed earlier.

Ethanol, for example, is clean, renewable and secure, but there is virtually no retail infrastructure in North America despite there being many E85-capable vehicles on the road.

Clean diesel cars are here, and with the latest technology and low-sulfur fuel, they are as clean as most gasoline-fuelled cars. But diesel is not the solution because in the end, it is still a petroleum product.

Most of the experts now agree that the next step in the electrification of the car is the plug-in hybrid, or PHEV in enviro-speak. The prime benefit over the current hybrid is the greatly expanded range possible on solely electric power, and concurrently less of a need to burn fuel to run the car’s engine – in theory, at least.

The reason it is still theory is that the level of battery technology has not quite yet caught up to the rest of the PHEV’s promise. Most of the R&D is being directed at lithium-ion chemistry, and if you heard about computer batteries catching fire, you know what some of the issues are.

As cars get more and more technological, it becomes increasingly difficult for the industry to know what that car buyer wants. If he or she has to give up too much utility, luxury or performance, and pay much more for the technology that will save a bit of gasoline each day, it is not going to happen without some intervention in the form of government policy, geo-political calamity or $2.50-a-litre gasoline.

The most common phrase heard at the AutoFutureTech Summit was that “there is no silver bullet” solution to our need to find new sources of energy and powertrains to drive our cars.

For now, there are several possible approaches; with work on the vehicle and infrastructure aspects, hopefully they will converge to a workable solution that meets the needs of all parties, including the consumer.

The most pessimistic observers say that if that doesn’t work, we are all in trouble.

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