In the 1970s, soaring oil prices forced automakers to consider
alternatives to gasoline-powered vehicles. But a decline in gasoline
prices during the 90s made those vehicles less economically viable.
Now, with oil prices at record highs, electric and alternative fuel
vehicles are again in demand. In this Searching for Solutions report, VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports from
Argonne National Laboratory outside Chicago, technology is trying to
catch up to demand.
At the Detroit Auto Show
earlier this year, U.S. automaker General Motors introduced the
Chevrolet Volt concept car, its long-awaited, "extended range electric"
GM would like to sell the car to consumers soon. But there is one hitch.
The technology that makes it work doesn't exist yet.
stepped way out with their decision to make the Volt because they don't
have a battery yet," said Don Hillebrand, director of
the Center for Transportation Research at the U.S. Department of
Energy's Argonne National Laboratory.
At Argonne, scientists and
engineers are studying the lithium-ion battery. The technology would
ultimately power the Volt for up to 40 miles, without gasoline.
A gasoline-powered backup would then take over and recharge the battery.
now the battery for the Volt is unstable. It is also expensive. Which
means that running the car would be more costly than using gasoline.
companies like GM, Ford, and Toyota have stepped out front and have
been willing to try to develop this technology, they're all waiting for
a battery that will meet their needs at a cost they can actually
afford, that consumers can pay for," Hillebrand said. "So a lot of the research we're
doing is focused on trying to provide that battery."
GM calls the Volt's technology "extended range electricity," Hillebrand
says it is similar to plug-in hybrids or PHEVs. PHEV technology is
currently being developed for vehicles like the Saturn Vue Sport
PHEVs allow drivers to use both a limited range battery, charged from an electrical outlet, and gasoline.
Some companies working on plug-in technology are bringing their vehicles to research engineer Michael Duoba.
fact, we're probably one of the only labs who have done nearly as
comprehensive of testing as anybody of plug-ins, so we've had at least
eight vehicles through here that we've tested, different designs,
different manufacturers," Duoba said.
another Argonne researcher, says no technology has emerged as the clear
alternative to gasoline. But some solutions, such as commercial hybrid
technology, are already available to consumers. It enables drivers to
go short distances on an electric battery before the gasoline engine
kicks in, extending the mileage you get from a tank of gasoline. The
battery is re-charged by the gasoline engine.
will be the short term..... And in the longer term, you're looking at
a plethora of newer technology like plug-in hybrids to possibly like
extreme alternative fuels like hydrogen," Lohse-Busch said.
Chevrolet Equinox uses hydrogen. Hydrogen gas powers a fuel cell that
moves the car. The exhaust is water. There is no pollution.
This Equinox in the testing facility is part of Challenge X, a competition sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy.
University students are competing against each other to find ways to make the hydrogen vehicle more efficient.
is clean, but it has limitations. There is no infrastructure for
distributing hydrogen across the United States. So the hydrogen has to
be available locally.
"And that will really depend on where you're located, and what the resources are that you have around you in your states," Lohse-Busch said.
Japanese carmaker Honda has announced that its hydrogen-powered car,
the FCX Clarity, will be available for leasing next year. At first,
only 200 will be available, and only in the western state of California.
GM has not yet announced when consumers can own its hydrogen Equinox. It is testing about 100 across North America.
At the same time, GM hopes the Volt will be the answer to current fuel woes. Don Hillebrand agrees. He says, "The Volt is a huge part of the solution actually, if it actually could work," Hillebrand said.
hopes to make the Volt widely available by 2010, around the same time
that Toyota intends to introduce a plug-in hybrid to customers in the