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Automakers toss ‘kitchen sink’ at fuel issue

After 100 years of the gas-powered internal combustion engine, the world’s leading automobile manufacturers gathered in Southern California this week look as much in disagreement about the next big fuel to power automobiles as they were a century ago. By Roland Jones

In 1907, a handful of technologies competed to run the newly-invented automobile. Each had its champions, and it was not clear which one would dominate — electricity, steam or gasoline.

Fast forward 100 years and apparently little has changed.

The dominant theme at this year’s Los Angeles Auto Show, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary, is the growing need for alternative-fuel vehicles to minimize the environmental impact of the automobile — an appropriate topic for a state where tough clean-air laws prevail and the market for environmentally friendly vehicles that run on hybrid gasoline-electric engines is thriving.

But after 100 years of the gas-powered internal combustion engine, the world’s leading automobile manufacturers gathered in Southern California this week look as much in disagreement about the next big fuel to power automobiles as they were a century ago.

Just about every new fuel is on display here in Los Angeles, from the latest hybrids to vehicles that run on hydrogen fuel cells, ethanol, biodiesel, natural gas or low-sulfur diesel. While some of these technologies, like hybrid engines, are widely used, others, like fuel-cell cars, which use hydrogen to create electricity and emit only water as a byproduct, are years from widespread adoption.

Most big automakers like General Motors, which used this year’s show to shift gears in its alternative-fuel strategy, announcing plans to make the production of electric vehicles a “top priority,” are taking a “kitchen sink” approach to alternative fuels said Rebecca Lindland, an automotive industry analyst at Global Insight.

GM, the world’s largest automaker, said Wednesday it plans to make a plug-in electric hybrid version of the Saturn Vue Green Line SUV, running on both gas and a battery that is charged while the vehicle is in motion and can be recharged from an electrical outlet, extending its range.

But in a speech opening the Los Angeles show, GM’s Chairman Rick Wagoner said vehicles running on fuel-cell technology as well as E85 — a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — are part of the automaker’s plan to cut its dependence on foreign oil.

GM’s range of alternative fuel products demonstrate that the company “is serious about fuel economy and minimizing the environmental impact of our vehicles,” said Troy Clarke, president of GM’s North American operations.

Lindland notes that the “splintered” approach to alternative fuels reflects GM's presence in a wide variety of world markets. While a hybrid sedan may sell well in California, it might not be what consumers in an emerging market like China want.

“GM has to approach this from many angles because they are spread so much across the globe,” she said. “They need to make sure they are profitable in many diverse regions of the world.”

The lack of cohesion among automakers is due to a lack of infrastructure for most new automobile fuels, said Lindland. Fuels like hydrogen are simply not available yet for consumers.

“Whether it’s hydrogen, diesel or plug-in electricity technology — they all have an infrastructure problem,” said Lindland. “So the reality of alternative fuel technology is all of them have a number of obstacles in the way before we see them broadly adopted.”

One of the major obstacles to mass adoption of hydrogen-powered vehicles is limited fuel storage, which limits their travel range. The lack of fueling stations is another issue, as big energy companies are unlikely to build fueling stations if there are few cars to use them, and car companies are not likely to build cars if they cannot be easily refueled.

Producing a fuel-cell engine on a mass scale would cost about four times as much as a conventional gasoline engine, according to the Energy Department’s estimate. And mass-produced fuel cell vehicles are 10 to 15 years away, according to JoAnn Milliken, acting hydrogen program manager for the Energy Department.

Incentives may speed up the process of change. The Energy Department is helping to pay for demonstration projects to help build vehicles that run on hydrogen, while car companies are receiving tax credits for bringing new products to market.

Like GM, Ford is moving ahead with a wide range of alternative fuels. This week Ford is showing a hydrogen-fueled Explorer sport utility vehicle, a prototype built for the Department of Energy that can travel farther than any other fuel-cell vehicle -- up to 350 miles on one fill-up -- and also a hybrid version of the Escape SUV.

Other automakers are showing off their environmentally friendly options, most notably BMW, which Wednesday unveiled its new Hydrogen 7, powered by a 12-cylinder combustion engine that it calls the world‘s first “hydrogen-powered performance sedan.”

The Hydrogen 7 has an internal combustion engine that can operate on either hydrogen or gasoline. The innovative sedan, which will be made in limited numbers and sold in 2007, is the first production vehicle powered by hydrogen running through combustion engine to be brought to market. The car can go 130 miles on a tank of hydrogen or 300 miles on a tank of gas.

“We understand that there’s an infrastructure issue here,” Tom Purves, head of BMW of North America, told CNBC. “We are in the early days of the development of the hydrogen infrastructure, but this is a product for the future and we are using it to learn.”