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Monday, October 06, 2003

A Fuel Cell Future?

Going back to a point Joerg made in August, the debate about hydrogen fuelled cars is warming-up (pun intended). Now it's GM who are claiming they want to be the first to sell a million fuel-cell cars. Also of note is the reference to the burdgeoning markets in China and India. Are all those who are making their oil industry investment calculations taking the full impact of this transition into account?

Less than a week after its biggest Japanese rival touted the economic and ecological benefits of hybrids, General Motors made a case of its own on Monday: only hydrogen-fueled cars will survive in the endgame. As the debate heats up over what the car of the future will ultimately look like, auto makers are staging a loud public relations battle to play up their strengths and justify the huge spending on developing the technologies so far. Just last Thursday, Japan's top auto maker, Toyota Motor, invited journalists to tour the production site of its new Prius hybrid to demonstrate how cheaply they could be built by sharing an assembly line with conventional mass-market cars.

But Larry Burns, GM's vice president of research, development and planning, said zero-emission fuel cell vehicles (FCV) will eventually make gasoline-electric hybrids obsolete, rejecting Toyota's view that hybrids will remain on the road even after FCVs become affordable for the average consumer. "The race needs to be judged with a long-term view -- the goal is to get automobiles out of the environmental debate altogether," he told Reuters in an interview. Hybrids use electric motors and battery packs to improve fuel efficiency, adding power during acceleration and reclaiming energy when braking and coasting, but still need gasoline to run. GM has invested about $1 billion in developing fuel cells to power electric motors in vehicles, and wants to be the first auto maker to sell a million FCVs. It hopes to commercialize FCVs by 2010 -- one of the most optimistic targets in the industry.

Japan's Toyota and Honda Motor became the first to put a saleable FCV on the road last year, but the cars are only on lease since they still cost millions of dollars to produce. Despite the many hurdles that remain to make FCVs commercially viable -- such as a lack of infrastructure and safety standards -- Burns said weaning the industry off gasoline would become imperative as fledgling car markets like those in China and India continue to grow.

"If you look at the growth of economies in the world -- whether it be the U.S., Japan, Europe, or Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea -- commensurate with that is the growth in energy consumption," he said. And with many countries relying almost 100 percent on foreign oil, they would eventually want vehicles that don't o conventional gasoline combustion engines in the interim before FCVs take over.In a week-long presentation in Tokyo with its Japanese affiliates that started on Monday, the GM group will showcase other cutting-edge technology such as truck maker Isuzu Motors' clean diesel engines and Fuji Heavy Industries' research into next-generation car batteries.GM, which also has a capital alliance with minivehicle maker Suzuki Motor and South Korea's Daewoo Motor in Asia, plans to begin selling its first gas-electric hybrid cars next year.

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