PBS: Scientific American Frontiers
PBS Scientific American Frontiers
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd
GM's Design and Technology Fusion Group and Series Producer
Thursday, May 20, 2004; 11:00 AM
PBS Scientific American Frontiers program, "Future Car" visits the research labs and testing tracks of the Big Three auto makers to find out what people will be driving 10 to 20 years from now. The future of automobiles depend on fuel efficiency and alternative fuels such as today's gasoline-electric hybrid cars. Several hydrogen-fueled cars still in development and the research for a non-polluting fuel-cell car extends from California, Germany to Iceland.
Chris Borroni-Bird, director of GM's Design and Technology Fusion Group and a leading expert on fuel cells, joins series producer Graham Chedd online Thursday, May 20 at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the documentary.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Hi. Thanks for watching the program. While a lot of the program was about a hydrogen future, the focus was on the car and not so much on the hydrogen fuel. The show was mostly about car technology. Funny thing was that when I remember writing at the end of the program "with gas under $2.00 a gallon," just before the show aired, the gas price went over the $2 mark!
Prior Lake, Minn.:
The program, Future Cars, was all electric or hydrogen powered cars. Nothing was mention of the air powered cars.Zero pollution. What's your opinion on there technology?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Our feeling that compressing air, you would have to compress at a very high pressure to store energy. Air is not a fuel and doesn't burn and you can't store energy in air unless you compress it with energy. So, it doesn't make any sense to make an air powered vehicle.
Did you notice the large amount of water emitted from the tailpipe of the Benz A-Series as it traveled down the road? How much water do Fuel Cell Cars typically emit? And how much yearly sea level rise would the planet experience if every car on the road today was a fuel cell vehicle?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: In the long term, hydrogen will be made renewable from water so any hydrogen that makes water on the vehicle, there will be no change in the net water on the planet because it was made from water in the first place. It's just a water cycle.
Very much enjoyed yesterdays program about cars increasingly moving towards hybrid and hydrogen technology. Question: Why was there no mention of hybrid DIESEL car development? While diesel cars cost more to produce they do get 25-30% better milage than gas driven ones. So wouldn't that translate to a 60+ mpg (actual) diesel hybrid?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: We did discuss diesels and the fact that they are a viable option for reducing fuel consumption. I assume a diesel hybrid is an option but no one we talked to is working on one. But we did discuss hydrogen internal combustion hybrids that Ford is working on.
Will we ever see a day when we pull into our driveway in an electric vehicle that we plug into our backyard wind powered generator or solar panel?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : No, we doubt that you would get enough power.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
With the best hydrogen storage technology currently available, how many pounds does the total storage solution weigh to give car a 300 mile range?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: About 150 kilograms, roughly 300 pounds -- hydrogen only requires only 10- 15 pounds, the tank system to contain it would be about 300 pounds.
Los Angeles, California:
Does a hydrogen - air fuel cell emit any nitrogen oxides?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : No. There is no combustion involved so there is no nitrogen oxide produced.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
What is the main cost factor in making a fuel cell? Are there expensive materials involved, like precious metals? Or is the main cost due to manufacturing processes, which could get cheaper if the fuel cells were produced in larger quantities?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: If we mass produced today's fuel cells, it would still be ten times more expensive than an engine because of the materials like precious metal catalysts. But we're working to reduce the cost.
Energy storage is the major issue. What are the latest developments in using flywheel storage devices in cars, and buses to store energy directly as kinetic energy for rapid discharge as electric propulsion as an adjunct or supplement to batteries? What prototypes exist? New materials employing composites that shatter rather than become projectiles on impact or failure, new approaches using near friction free magnetic levitation on the bearings,and vaccuum spinning are getting spin safely over 60,000 revolutions. Since energy storage capacity is related to the square of spin speed and only linearly related to mass, flywheels appear to be safe, and efficient with potential for long term reliability? Why has this approach remained relatively undeveloped in the mainstream? By the way, this approach in hybid vehicles, with battery/flywheel storage would maximize the different strengths of each storage approach to produce a super fast, super efficient vehicle.
Chandler is in GM's backyard near the GM testing center. If such a prototype exists, I would not mind getting a look at it with GM.s engineer's. I might be able to offer some positive suggestions.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: No, we're not working on flywheels for energy storage.
In reference to the Future Car show and the alternative fuel, hydrogen, is there an existing product/company that has or has plans to develop a kit that individuals can use to experiment with creating home built hydrogen cars or perhaps some smaller vehical? If this were available it could spawn the type of explosion of intrest just as Apple computer did with it's first offerings to the home grown experimenters. It can could also be the begining of americans embrasing this alternative since we are so addicted to our gas vehicles and gas stations on most corners. I personally have been tracking Ballad Power Systems Inc and Distributed Energy Systems Corporation but products look prohibitive in terms of cost and ease of maintenance or use. Is there an avenue for a home grown effort for the average individual?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: You can certainly buy kits for kids to make these cars. I don't think there is anything offered for you to make a functioning vehicle but you can certainly buy the toy kits for kids to make hydrogen fuel toy cars.
What is GMC doing to compete with small-mid size cars coming from Japan that get 60+ miles per gallon? Will GMC offer models in the near future that get this kind of gas mileage?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Our plan is not to focus on improving the fuel economy in small cars; we're focused on hybridizing our trucks/SUVS which can save more fuel and help the environment more in terms of CO2 reduction.
I find it incredible that the automobile is still pretty much the same vehicle it was in the era of the Model-T: four rubber wheels on a steel chassis with a gasoline combustion engine. Why hasn't all the brainpower in Detroit been able to come up with a machine that is radically better and more efficient in the last seventy-five years?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We've tried with alternative power vehicles. Remember battery-powered vehicles? We continually try to dramatically improve our vehicles but at the same time we have to put a lot of effort into incrementally improving existing vehicles. If you look at the performance of today's cars versus Henry Ford's, there is a huge improvement. Whenever we try to develop a paradigm shift, we've run into problems until now.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: With the hydrogen fuel cell, we feel it is possible to make a vehicle that is truly better than the conventional vehicle.
Los Angeles, Calif.:
There are currently PZEV (partial zero emission vehicles) for sale. Some are very modestly priced cars, like the Ford Focus. I understand these cars produce only 1/10th the pollution of an average new car. What is the technological magic used? Why isn't this the standard all cars must meet?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: The partial zero emission vehicle is addressing hydrocarbon, CO and nitrogen oxide emissions. It says nothing about CO2 emissions, so PZEVs do not address global warming or dependence on Middle East oil or renewable energy. That is what the hydrogen fuel cell can solve as well as eliminating all emissions to make it zero emissions.
I don't understand the auto industry's fascination with hydrogen. As an energy carrier it is extremely poor, requiring very strong high pressure tanks or very low temperature storage (i.e. liquid H2). It currently has a non-existent distribution network. The fuel cell is a long way from being a cost-effective automotive powerplant replacement. The only positive I can see with hydrogen is that I can use a solar panel and an electrolyzer and make my own hydrogen if I wish.
Why has there been no effort expended on bringing battery-powered EV's to production? Unlike fuel cells and hydrogen, the technology already exists and is fairly mature. The GM EV1 was a spectacular first try. Living in Michigan, I was not allowed to get one since EV1 leases were limited to the Southwest US.
As a green commuter vehicle, an EV is very suited to the job. Battery tech has been moving by leaps and bounds thanks to the computer industry. New lithium-ion technology is a huge improvement over lead-acid batteries. Thanks to Li-Ion's power density, range is no longer an issue for a commuter Li-Ion EV. Unlike hydrogen, an EV fuel distribution network is already in place. It's called an electrical socket. Many houses have one or more of them in every room. A nightly recharge using low-cost off-peak electricity from the power grid is cheaper than gasoline (even before our current petrol price situation) and much cleaner than a petrol-powered piston engine could ever hope to attain.
In the end, it's all about the money. My last few cars have been Japanese because in my opinion they are the best blend of quality, fuel efficiency, and features. However, if Detroit would show me some real green (an EV), I'll show them some green as well (my wallet).
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We continue to evaluate battery technology and will use them in hybrids but at this point the hydrogen fuel cell appears to be the best chance to provide customers with the utility and performance they need while still addressing societal concerns.
Good segment on the diesel cars. I'm running my pickup on biodiesel right now and that gets me the same mileage but cuts most emissions in almost half and totally eliminates sulfate emission. Are there any cars being made in Germany already tuned with electronic fuel injection for this fuel?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: I think the European regulations for emissions are easier to meet than the U.S.
I drive everyday to work by myself with no carpool in a car that weighs well over 3,000 pounds. This is a midsize car with SUV's weighing even more. It seems ludicrous to me to drive my 180 pound body to and from work with such a hugely large mass. And when I look around I'm not alone in my foolishness. Most of the people around me are also driving to work in large cars without passengers. I have an idea that you touched on in a way in your program. The skateboard prototype I thought was excellent except in my opinion it lacked one thing. Why make a car out of heavy materials? Why not just extend the whole idea of airbags just a little further? Why not just make the whole body of the car into one large airbag? Just as in a regular car with unibody construction there are built in crumple zones you could do the same thing with the plastic inflated body. except the difference would be that except for some scuff marks on the plastic there would need to be no body work! Also since you could drasticly cut down on the mass of the vehicle it would take a much smaller engine and get much better mileage I would think. Has this ever been considered? Just curious.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We are looking at low weight materials -- alumninum, magnesium and plastics -- that can reduce the weight of our vehicles.
North Bend, Wash.:
How is hydrogen produced to fuel the cars that use hydrogen? Does hydrogen production cause pollution?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: The nice thing about hydrogen is that it can be produced in many different ways from fossil fuels to renewable sources like geothermal or solar. The goal is to move increasingly towards non-polluting methods of producing hydrogen from renewable sources.
Old Greenwich, Conn.:
Can you use water that the hydrogen gas gives off for more power?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : No. Water does not have any power.
I don't understand why oil companies are
not more enthusiastic about creating an
infrastructure for hydrogen fuel at the gas
stations that they already operate. With
hydrogen, they wouldn't have the expense
of exploration, drilling, shipping,
pipelining and refining. During the
transition between petroleum and
hydrogen, oil companies could make
money from both fuels. Hydrogen is
infinately abundant and can be produced
in the city where it is sold. Hydrogen is
coming. We need to stop sending
billions to hostile nations. Why should
we continue to be at the mercy of a cartel
that controls suppy and price? Why
hasn't the domestic oil industry taken the
lead in encouraging the use of hydrogen?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: All of the oil companies are now taking hydrogen seriously. The plans that you are suggesting are being considered by major companies.
Isn't there technology that allows a car to detect an increasingly closer and dangerous proximity to another car that allows a warning or some action that can reduce car accidents? It seems to me I read something about this years ago, and I've seen similar detection abilities for cars when they're parking, yet I thought there was something for moving cars.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: Yes, those technologies are being developed by all major car technologies unfortunately we didn't have room in the show to put it in.
Chris: The Cadillac XLR has adapted cruise control that keeps you at certain distance from a vehicle in front of you -- we have been developing towards accident/collision prevention.
Graham: I believe that DaimlerChrysler has an active program in that area as well.
What is the average passenger miles per gallon hour of public transportation outside of rush hour for the total trip? I observe that public transporation is mostly empty most of the time and very slow.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Good question but I don't know if there is an answer for it.
Japanese car manufacturers started selling hybrid vehicles three years ago. U.S. manufacturers keep saying they will but have not yet put a hybrid on the market. Why is the US behind on this? Why can't every car model offer a hybrid option?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: Chris made the point that GM is working on hybridizing larger vehicles. Ford is coming out with a hybrid SUV this year and I think DaimlyrChrysler is too so I think U.S. manufacturers are catching up in the hybrid stakes.
I loved the hydrogen show but I wish to know why
renewable energy such as wind was not stressed more.
I've created a windmill that will capture wind at up to ten
thousand feet to create electricity for the production of
hydrogen. What do you suggest to those people who have
hydrogen ideas considered a little too unnusual to get a
hearing from the industry?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We are neutral on which methods of production are the best in the longterm. If windpower can make hydrogen from electricity very cost effectively than that's great news. We're saying that in the near term, hydrogen is economically made from natural gas. But ultimately we believe it will be made renewably and that could certainly include windpower. So we are neutral on what is the best way to make hydrogen renewably and that depends on economics.
In terms of who you talk to, you should talk to energy companies who are interested in developing the hydrogen production and distribution infrastructure.
How long before I can buy a Hy-Wire?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We're targeting between 2010 and 2015 for the first fuel celled vehicles and they won't look exactly like the hy-wire because that was a concept vehicle that was not intended to meet all the performance and safety requirements.
If you get all the hydrogen from water and not from natural gas, what are you going to do with the left over oxygen. If you release it into the air it will pollute and through the oxygen balance out of wack. We will have an increase in fire danger.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: As Chris answered the previous question about water being recycled, here you are recycling oxygen and there is no increase in the oxygen content in the atmosphere.
I'm very excited by the promise of hydrogen feul cell technology, but in the meantime, my husband and I have bought/will only buy the currently available gas/electric hybrids. I'm happy to see that GM is looking to the future, but wonder if you have any insight on why American automakers have been slow to jump on the hybrid market?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Thanks a lot and that is a great question! GM sees hybrids as not only a solution to environmental and emission concerns -- we are focusing our efforts on fuel cells as a longterm solution to these concers as well. We think we can build a better vehicle with a fuel cell -- so that it is not only about helping the environment but an opportunity to reinvent the automobile as well as a business opportunity for GM.
How far can a car go on a "tank" of hydrogen? Please speak a little to top speed and acceleration.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: We believe that it is possible for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to provide 300 miles range and 100 miles per hour top speed and even better acceleration that conventional vehicles becuase of electric drive.
I once had a Hondra CRX that achieved gas mileage in the vincinity of 50 MPG. I believe it was done throught a hightly efficient combustion process. Why arent high efficent engines being produced to do this in present day cars?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: Gas engines are far more efficient than they used to be. But the cars themselves have gotten a lot heavier and more powerful so vehicle fuel economy has stalled in recent years.
Does GM have anything that competes directly in terms of price, engineering, and status with Mercedes, Lexus, and Acura?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Yes, what about the Cadillac?
Could government incentives like tax credits, low cost loans to service stations converting to hydrogen sales, and direct research assistance be used to overcome the bottleneck obstacles to widespread fuel cell use? It seems to me that the society-wide benefits of practical fuel cell cars would justify fiving the free market a helping hand.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Our objective is to make the fuel cell vehicle competitive in its own rights because only then will the market be sustainable. But we welcome if governments can help trigger or catalyze the introduction of these vehicles either by incentivizing the vehicle or the fuel and by helping with the infrastructure.
One of the concerns about buying a hybrid today is the eventual cost of replacing the battery. Are we stuck in a conundrum whereby the innovative technology such as hybrid vehicles and these future hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will still be impractical cost-wise for most drivers to afford to buy and maintain over their current gasoline vehicles?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Graham: Alternative vehicles will continue to be more expensive than gas vehicles in the short term. But as gas prices continue to increase and environmental concerns become greater, that will change.
The talk of the use of hydrogen as a fuel for automobiles does not consider how this hydrogen will be produced. Isnt it much less energy efficient to produce the hydrogen and distribute it then it is to use goasoline engines or other forms of energy and make them extremly energy efficient in themselves?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Over the whole fuel chain, from well to wheels, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is more efficient than a gasoline vehicle. Moreover, because hydrogen today is made from natural gas and not oil, there is a further improvement in CO2 emissions of 25%. Even if it was the same efficiency, it would produce 25% CO2 because you are starting off with natural gas and not oil. In the long run, we hope hydrogen is made renewably.
What is the biggest obstacle to switching to a non-petroleum based engine?
Is is the actual manufacturing/retooling cost?
The supply chain?
Or is it the infrastructure of new service
stations in the field?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Gasoline packs a lot of energy in a small volume. Alternative fuels even liquid ones like ethanol up to now did not have the range and this has been one obstacle to widespread use.
What is the longest any of these FCVs have been driven on one fuel cell stack? Are you confident that the fuel cell stack will have a durability comparable to today's ICEs, which last 100,000 or more miles?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Durability is one of the areas under development for fuel cells. Other key areas include cost reduction and hydrogen storage improvement.
You have mentioned that hydrogen production in the future will hopefully be made using renewable energy sources. Since the transportation sector will likly be the largest consumer of hydrogen, what steps are being taken to improve renewable energy technology by the auto industry?
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Chris: Renewable energy is not an area that we are actively working on because our responsibility is the vehicle. Energy providers such as BP -- the largest manufacturers of solar cells. How gasoline or other fuels are made is something that is not the competency of a car company and we are certainly interested in the work but don't have the capabilities to create the hydrogen infrastructure and we have to work with energy companies and hydrogen companies and the government to make this happen.
Chris Borroni-Bird and Graham Chedd : Thanks for your questions and watching the program.
© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive