In his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, President Bush proposed reducing America's dependence on foreign supplies of energy in part by increasing the supply of alternative fuels. The president's comments came as automakers were previewing their latest technological innovations at the Washington Auto Show.
For a century, the internal combustion engine has dominated motor vehicles. That's a long time for a single technology to rule. Now, automakers are on the threshold of a new era in motor vehicle propulsion.
One of the stars of this year's auto show was a car that looks fairly ordinary on the outside. It's based on Ford's Edge crossover vehicle. (A crossover, by the way, is the 21st century version of the venerable station wagon: styled like a sport utility vehicle, or SUV, but built on a car platform.) But behind the sheet metal, this Edge is nothing like the ones on showroom floors. This prototype version combines a fuel cell with a plug-in hybrid engine. "Plug-in" refers to the fact that you charge the battery by just plugging it in to an ordinary wall socket. It's not ready for production yet, but Ford Vice President Sue Cischke says it's an example of an automotive future defined by flexibility.
"And this vehicle offers the ultimate in flexibility," she says. "It enables the combination of the best and most appropriate technologies as they evolve. The HySeries name comes from its unique powertrain structure - a hydrogen fuel cell in series with a battery-powered hybrid drive train, coming together with one additional element: plug-in capability."
Electricity, whether from the power grid or a fuel cell, is stored in on-board batteries. But today's batteries need to be large and heavy to store the power needed to drive a family car. General Motors was showing the Chevy Volt, a concept car with a variety of fuel options, and loaded with batteries. GM vice president Beth Lowery says there is still work to be done in battery development.
"Battery technology is very important," Lowery stresses. "Right now it looks promising with lithium ion batteries, and we will work with battery suppliers to make that available for automotive applications. Very important work is now getting underway with the Department of Energy and others to really get America competitive with respect to battery supplies. Right now we don't have a lot of that here in the U.S."
The Chevy Volt, like Ford's Edge, isn't ready for production yet. Other technologies, though, are. In Europe, in particular, diesel engines have played an important role in fuel efficiency. Diesels were fairly popular in the U.S. market a couple of decades ago, but interest faded because of noise, performance and pollution. The newest generation diesels are fuel-efficient and perform well, but their success has been hampered by limited availability of low-sulphur fuel. DaimlerChrysler unveiled diesel-powered heavy duty pickup trucks to go on sale later this year. The company says they meet 2010 pollution standards three years early.
Diesels also are more readily adaptable to non-petroleum based fuel, such as biodiesel made from food or non-food crops, and studies have shown biodiesel can reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent. Gasoline engines can run on blends of ethanol made from corn, sugar cane or other crops, reducing reliance on imported oil.
In his speech on Tuesday, President Bush spoke about reforming fuel economy standards. The existing standards have been criticized by environmental groups, who say they allow too many gas guzzling vehicles on the road.
The industry doesn't like them either.
DaimlerChrysler chairman Dieter Zetsche describes government efforts to mandate better fuel economy as "an attempt to regulate supply and not to use market forces to stimulate demand." He doesn't like high fuel taxes either. Instead, he says, "American policymakers should adopt a new and unique formula, that fits here. A formula that encourages more technologies and more choices."
However, veteran automotive journalist Warren Brown of the Washington Post says that in other countries, taxes on fuel and on powerful cars with large engines have resulted in more fuel-efficient vehicles on the road.
"Why do the Europeans have more fuel-efficient vehicles? Why do the Asians have more fuel-efficient vehicles? Is it because they're smarter than we are? No. Not really," he says. "You know, first of all gasoline is not cheap [there] because of taxes. If you want to buy a 500 horsepower vehicle instead of a 150 horsepower vehicle, you can buy it, but you're going to pay taxes on it."
Whatever government does, it will be up to the auto industry to produce cleaner running, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Assistant Energy Secretary Alexander Karsner says the key is moving from auto show demonstration vehicles to mass production.
"We don't need hundreds. We don't need thousands. We need millions -- millions of cars on the road, available to consumers, so that people have greater fuel choice and vehicle choice," Karsner told reporters at the auto show. "And the cars that people want are efficient, easier on their pocketbook. These should not be options."
Whether it's market forces, government regulations, supply disruptions, fear of climate change or some combination of factors, major changes in motor vehicle power plants are headed our way.