The world is changing and it's happening fast. So fast, in fact, it's difficult to predict the future. Just as one new technology comes along, its replacement is already waiting in the wings.
We often take this for granted. Yet in our lifetime we've all seen and experienced major steps forward. Some of these include your first cellphone, iPod or in-car navigation. You might even remember your first email, internet browse or maybe your first DVD player. Sometimes we need to take stock of where we're heading and appreciate these major steps forward in terms of both our lifestyle and technology.
It wasn't long ago we drove our first hybrid vehicle. The technology is an adaptation of what's around us, and still relies on conventional fossil fuel back-up. So while it's an advance, it's not quite the future. However, the fuel cell is something we'd heard about for years and wondered if it was possible. In the future, we were told, cars would run on a harmless gas, and their only waste product would be water. Back then it seemed to good to be true. How could it be possible? Well, we've driven the future and it's a VW Passat!
Like all major manufacturers, VW is working on several technologies, including clean diesel, bio-fuels, hybrid, diesel-hybrid CNG (compressed natural gas), electric and fuel cell. The problem is, nobody knows which technology will be accepted, and most researchers currently predict there won't be one solution. So companies around the world are working on different answers to the same problem in the hope of cracking the code.
Alternative fuels are needed for many reasons, but global warming, reliance on overseas oil, lower CAFE standards and California's zero-emissions standards are among the key contributors.
Fortunately, there's common ground such as fuel delivery systems. For example, most of the major manufacturers are working with the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) in association with energy providers, government agencies and fuel cell technology companies to coordinate standardization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, filling stations, filling nozzles and regulations, etc.
We visited the CaFCP headquarters in Sacramento, CA where VW had assembled its fleet of 20 Passat Lingyu fuel cell cars from China. They'd been used as course cars during the road events at the Beijing Olympics and were a collaboration between VW Shanghai, Tongji University and VW Research.
The Passats' fuel cells were created at the university and are a fourth generation unit. They work by introducing hydrogen into the negative anode side of the fuel cell, and oxygen into the positive cathode. The movement of protons through the exchange membrane is what creates electricity to power the motor.
The Passats are driven by a 120hp, 155 lb-ft electric motor, with energy supplied by the 75hp fuel cell system mounted under the hood and a lithium-ion battery when extra acceleration is needed. The hydrogen fuel is transported in a carbon fiber-reinforced tank pressurized to 350bar. Regenerative braking technology is also employed, using the braking energy to charge the battery.
The stark contrast of this cutting-edge technology to the Passat's mundane exterior was stark. Yet the idea is to illustrate how this incredible technology can be seamlessly integrated into our daily lives.
Unlike an electric hybrid, which is virtually silent at start-up, the fuel cells whizz and phissssh as the hydrogen is moved under incredible pressure. They also make a gurgling sound as any excess water is blown out of the tailpipe.
Once underway, the sounds are replaced by regular wind and tire noise as the cars glide almost silently along the road. Throttle response from these fourth-gen cars isn't what you'd call spritely. In fact, they're pretty slow and a warning buzzer would tell you to slow down when using more power than was being generated. But that's ok, we don't expect Ferrari speeds yet...
We were just amazed this technology existed at all. We thought it was science-fiction. But here were were, driving around Sacramento powered by hydrogen. It was the future.
But while the Passat fuel cell cars may have been rather humdrum, don't imagine that's how VW sees the future. Perhaps a better idea was given in 2007 when it unveiled its up! family of cars, including the space up! blue concept car at the Los Angeles Auto Show. It had the world's first high-temperature fuel cell plus an array of 12 lithium-ion batteries. When the 60hp electric motor is driven exclusively by battery, it could cover a range of 65 miles. Refueling was possible either by plugging it into an electrical outlet or by the high-temperature fuel cell. The latter could extend the range by an additional 155 miles, making it possible to drive up to 220 miles on a single "energy charge". Furthermore, the microvan utilized the sun, boasting a large solar panel on the roof. This could supply up to 150 watts into the battery.
The clever space concept of the space up! blue, which weighed just 2400 lb, was largely due to the layout of the powertrain. Its electric motor operated in the rear, like an air-cooled Beetle. Also in the rear, under the seat, were the lithium-ion batteries, while the fuel cell was located conventionally at the front of the car.
However, fuel cell systems aren't without their critics. The problem with hydrogen is it needs to be stored at a very high pressure, creating a potential hazard in an impact. It's also relatively combustible if ignited with oxygen (air), although it has a tendency to disperse into the air if released in small quantities, rising at 40mph.
An even larger problem is supplying hydrogen gas to cars around the country, especially if demand increases significantly. Currently, we're told they produce about 30 million cubic feet of hydrogen in the US for industrial use, but estimate we'd need to double that to run cars on it. However, it's currently less efficient to produce hydrogen than to run cars on batteries or CNG. So much of the research is focused on cheaper ways to produce it, including the possibility of small home stations powered by solar or wind power.
The advantage of fuel cell technology is that it offers a greater range than current battery technology, but only if you can refuel on your journey. Currently in California (expected to be the largest market for alternative fuel vehicles) there are six hydrogen filling stations. However, its estimated that up to 100 will be needed in the next eight years to service the predicted 50,000 cars on the road by 2017.
So while VW offers its fuel-sipping TDI models on the US market today, hybrid models are coming soon. Even more tantalizing is the promise of a TDI-hybrid, which should give unrivalled fuel economy. In the meantime, it will continue to work on its fuel cell technology, full electric vehicles, synthetic fuels and bio-fuels.
The future is here and we need to start adapting to the new world. We just hope that once manufacturers like VW have worked out how to keep us mobile in a changing world, they'll also remember to make it fun!