I’m starting to wonder if the oil conspiracy paranoids were right. For years, the auto industry (mainly the American auto industry) was rolling out these hulking fuel hogs for us to drive. Even though they made us more dependent on foreign oil, even though they spewed more carbon emissions into the atmosphere, even though they were one big wallet suck on the U.S. consumer, Detroit shat out Escalade after Yukon after Suburban. And as they were doing this, and gas prices crept higher, those screeching weirdos who are way too into The X-Files yelled “There’s a better way than the internal combustion engine and it’s already been invented but the government kidnapped the inventor and has the secret locked up at Area 51 because that’s what OPEC told them to do or else they’ll make oil $400 a barrel now I gotta go and check my Bigfoot trap.” And then Art Bell would try and ask a follow-up question.
And we scoffed, because Americans love a good conspiracy theory, but we don’t love to believe a good conspiracy theory. But given the pace of hybrid technology recently, you’ve gotta wonder: did that guy escape from Area 51?
How else do you explain the fact that the Chevy Tahoe was just named the Green Car Journal’s Green Car of the Year? Just 4 model years ago, in 2004, this blimp was sucking wind with just 14 miles per gallon in the city. Fourteen! That’s terrible! And now it gets 21 mpg and is the Green Car of the Year – and to answer your rightfully skeptical question, no, that’s not some bullshit front organization for Chevron or Royal Dutch Shell, it’s a real-deal independent journal who put together a panel of bona fide environmental and industry experts that included Carroll Shelby, Jay Leno, Carl Pope (Sierra Club), Christopher Flavin (Worldwatch Institute), Jonathan Lash (World Resources Institute), and Jean-Michel Cousteau (Ocean Futures Society). So if you entered college in 2004, your first day of class took place in an era where carmakers were shoving gas-guzzling Saudi prince cash pumps into the marketplace and saying “We’d like to make a more fuel-efficient car, really! But that technology is decades away!” And when you graduate this coming spring, you will be entering a world where an American-made full-size SUV gets the same gas mileage as a 4-cylinder Toyota Camry and is the Green Car of the Year. (Also, on an unrelated note, you should probably know that college was a huge waste of your time.) I think my favorite thing about the Tahoe getting this award is that it pretty much proves that market capitalism is the greatest conceivable form of economic system, as once fuel inefficiency became a problem of sufficient severity, significant downward movements in consumer demand for the inefficient cars created strong market forces which acted upon the car companies, who quickly redirected their resources into making a more efficient car to appease the marketplace and thereby win back market share so they could regain profitability. So, the Chevy Tahoe Hybrid: Screw you, Karl Marx.
But encouraging though the Tahoe Hybrid may be, there’s been another automotive development, this one coming out of the Los Angeles Auto Show, that has far more sci-fi, car of the future potential: Honda rolled out the FCX Clarity.
What’s so great about the Clarity? I’ll tell you what, Sparky: it’s a hydrogen fuel-cell car, the first of its kind to be offered to the general public. You think the Tahoe Hybrid’s 21 mpg is good, put this in your pipe and smoke it: the Clarity gets 68. I have no idea how fuel cell engines work, so I will let Matthew Phenix of Wired explain it:
The FCX Clarity’s powertrain consists of Honda’s V Flow stack, a compact lithium ion battery pack, a single hydrogen storage tank, and an AC synchronous electric motor driving the front wheels. Hydrogen and atmospheric oxygen combine in the fuel cell stack, where chemical energy from the reaction is converted into electric power (with water the only by-product). The energy is stored in the batteries and fed to the car’s electric motor, with extra juice produced through regenerative braking and deceleration further supplementing the fuel cell stack when the need arises. Range on a full tank is expected to be about 270 miles.
So, as far as I can tell, it uses one of these:
that you fill up with one of these:
and since you’re driving a hydrogen-powered vehicle, put this:
right out of your head.
Of course, given the quicker-than-expected pace of this technology, it’s becoming clear that the real challenge to the dream of a fleet of oil-free fuel cell cars and a castrated OPEC isn’t building the vehicles, it’s installing the infrastructure. Hydrogen fuel cells need hydrogen fuel stations, and for right now, that fact is keeping the Clarity restricted to Southern California. As of October of this year, there were only 122 hydrogen-capable stations in the United States, compared to over 180,000 gas stations. Until there are plans with hard commitments to begin expanding this availability, automakers aren’t going to produce very many of these cars, obviously. A pilot program for this infrastructure expansion is in California, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which is a collaboration between automakers, fuel station builders, fuel cell makers, and government agencies.
Here’s hoping it works – hybrids represent, in my view, a nice bridge technology to establish and maintain momentum in the demand for petroleum-free cars and thereby support the incentive for automakers to get us there. But that’s all they are, a bridge technology…they’re still burning gas, just not as much. The real holy grail is a completely clean-burning fuel source. Because God knows, Americans aren’t going to start walking places, right?