Ford Motor Co. has challenged industry and the U.S. government to move more quickly towards hydrogen-powered vehicles, announcing what it called "the world's cleanest internal combustion engine" and boasting that it could start production within two years.
The announcement hasn't created much buzz beyond the green vehicle exhibit in Shanghai where it was announced last Wednesday.
But Ford touted it as a "bridging strategy" to get from today's gas-electric hybrids to a future of hydrogen-powered fuel cells. The car industry and government are developing fuel cells, which would replace internal combustion engines, but obstacles include high costs and how best to obtain hydrogen.
Ford's strategy is based on taking an internal combustion engine and running it on hydrogen. BMW has pushed a similar strategy in Europe, but no other carmaker has joined them.
Having worked on a hydrogen internal combustion engine for several years, Ford said its researchers had made a "breakthrough" in recent months that reduced nitrogen oxide emissions to below the world's most stringent standards. Nitrogen oxide combined with heat creates smog.
The engine also reduces emissions of carbon dioxide — a so-called greenhouse gas that many scientists fear is contributing to global warming — by 99 percent compared to a conventional internal combustion engine, Ford said.
Mike Flynn, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, called the announcement "potentially significant" and didn't question Ford's technical claims.
But he noted that Ford made clear the engine still needs work to improve performance, "which means it's not ready for drive time."
Earlier versions of the engine have been tested in Ford Focus wagons dubbed Hydrogen Hybrid Research Vehicles, or H2RVs. The company has also developed a shuttle bus that runs on the hydrogen internal combustion engine, and plans to use two at the North American International Auto Show next January in Detroit to demonstrate their capability.
The Focus wagons include a battery pack that powers an electric motor, creating a hydrogen-electric hybrid engine. The H2RVs are being tested in southeast Michigan.
Ford said fuel efficiency improves by 25 percent with hydrogen and up to 50 percent with a hybrid hydrogen engine.
"We can build and sell them right now," Sue Cischke, Ford's vice president for environmental and safety engineering, told reporters at Challenge Bibendum, a green vehicle exhibit named after host Michelin's fluffy white mascot.
But she added that still lacking are a hydrogen fueling infrastructure as well as uniform regulations to allow hydrogen vehicles across the United States. "We cannot do it alone," she said, referring to the need for government and industry cooperation.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing ahead with a plan to have 200 hydrogen stations along state highways by 2010, but the federal government has been cautious.
Phyllis Yoshida, the director of President Bush's fuel cell vehicle initiative, welcomed Ford's announcement but didn't hold out hope for more federal support beyond the existing several million dollars in research on hydrogen internal combustion engines.
"There's nothing we can do," she told MSNBC.com in response to Ford's challenge, adding that it would be premature to invest heavily in a hydrogen refueling infrastructure. "You don't want to invest too much since the station technology can change," she said.
Environmentalists have taken a slightly different perspective, urging Ford and other carmakers to focus more on gasoline-electric hybrids until and unless hydrogen can be produced at a reasonable cost via renewable energy like solar or wind power. Right now, most hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, a process that releases carbon dioxide even if it's not at the tailpipe.
"While Ford’s hydrogen technology is impressive, the real problem is where the hydrogen will come from," said Roland Hwang, vehicles policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
"A gasoline hybrid can outcompete on greenhouse gases a hydrogen internal combustion engine vehicle if the hydrogen is made from natural gas, the most likely and economical source in the midterm," he added. "So it’s not clear why anyone would prefer a hydrogen vehicle, either from a consumer or policy perspective."
But David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., feels that even with those drawbacks the strategy is "a very viable concept" and one that will provide experience on a road towards a possible hydrogen and fuel cell future.
"There’s always a PR dimension to all this," he said, "but it’s real."
Building hydrogen internal combustion engines wouldn't be expensive, he added, "and you want to prepare yourself for whatever might occur."
Unprecedented effort seen
Ford agrees that getting hydrogen from a non-fossil fuel source is the ultimate goal, but counters that it's not too early to start building the infrastructure and some early vehicles.
"The transition ... to a hydrogen economy is going to be a huge national and international challenge that is going to require coordination between governments, fuel providers and ourselves in a scale that we have never before seen," Gerhard Schmidt, Ford's vice president for research and advanced engineering, said in a statement released with the announcement. "Whether we want to take that step is a decision for the public and government, but Ford Motor Company is ready with product today."
Flynn said it's not unusual for carmakers to "challenge the government and each other," adding that Ford "probably thinks it has a bit of a leg up here."
And it doesn't hurt if Ford, which has built a green vehicle ad campaign around its new hybrid Escape SUV, reaches out to environmentalists who feel betrayed by other recent Ford moves, among them abandoning electric and natural gas vehicle programs.
"It’s in Ford's interest to continue making statements showing progress on environmental issues," Flynn said.