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The Cars of Tomorrow

What will replace the fossil-fuel burning car as we know it? Will it be ethanol? Hydrogen? Electricity? Despite the gas-guzzling Hummers, pickup trucks, and SUVs whose four-wheel-drive, offroad capabilities most Americans will never, ever need, there were signs that things are changing at this year’s New York International Auto Show. I met with three different companies and checked out their visions for the future of cars. One was an established German auto maker, another an inventive American startup, and the last, well, they spurred the start of the space tourism industry.

What will replace the fossil-fuel burning car as we know it? Will it be ethanol? Hydrogen? Electricity? Despite the gas-guzzling Hummers, pickup trucks, and SUVs whose four-wheel-drive, offroad capabilities most Americans will never, ever need, there were signs that things are changing at this year’s New York International Auto Show. I met with three different companies and checked out their visions for the future of cars. One was an established German auto maker, another an inventive American startup, and the last, well, they spurred the start of the space tourism industry.

On Tuesday, I test drove BMW’s H7, a car that runs on both gas and hydrogen, and is an attempt to solve the chicken-and-egg dilemma of hydrogen-powered cars. Namely, the lack of hydrogen refilling stations. At the moment, there are only a handful in the world, and the nearest one to New York City is in Washington, DC. So whaddya do? Make a car that runs on gasoline as well. It’s not a perfect solution, but it is a practical German one. The car itself is a modified 760Li, the larger of the 7-series sedans, and, I must say, very luxurious. The hydrogen tank, which is about the size of two of those backyard grill propane tanks stacked end to end, is situated in the trunk right behind the rear passenger seats. It’s made of carbon fiber, and is insulated so well, the BMW rep told me, that if you put a cup of coffee inside it, it’d stay hot for 15 days. The car gets about 140 miles on hydrogen alone, and when you run out, you simply press a button on the steering wheel and the car automatically switches to gasoline. It’s that easy–there’s a little thump as the valves for the gas tank open up, and a little bit difference in engine noise, as the car sounds more like a diesel when it’s running on hydrogen. BMW’s only making about 100 of these cars, mainly to prove a point that making a dual-fuel car is possible and practical.

Another car out to make a point is Hybrid Technologies’ L1X-75, an all-electric supercar. This one was real fun to drive: Being small, light, and electric, as soon as I stomped on the gas–er, pedal–the car took off like a rocket. A prototypical $100,000 sports car, this thing was a pain to get into, cramped once you got there, but man, was it fast. It’s the equivalent of 600 horsepower, and quiet: All you heard from the car is a faint hum from the electrical system. To quote Ferris Bueller, “it is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”
Several people stopped and asked us about the car when we were stopped, which wasn’t often. But the flashiness of the car is mainly to prove a point, says Richard Griffiths, Hybrid’s head of business development. The real key, he says, is putting this technology into cars that the general public will be able to afford. To that end, Hybrid Technologies is making a business of adapting traditional cars, such as the Mini Cooper, the PT Cruiser, and the Smart Car, into all-electric vehicles. If you’re in New York and you happen to see a PT Cruiser taxi cab that doesn’t make any noise, that’s Hybrid Technologies rig.

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Afterwards, I met with Cristin Lindsay, the senior director of the Automotive X Prize. This is the same organization that we wrote about last year, and who was behind the Ansari X Prize, which was won by Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne, now being adapted for commercial space flights, courtesy of Richard Branson. The automotive X Prize, says Lindsay, is to not only produce a car that can get 100 miles to the gallon, or its equivalent, but must be able to be mass-produced for the public. “We don’t want concept cars or science projects,” she says. “Teams will have to prove that they have the business plan and infrastructure to sell the cars.” While the X Prize foundation feels that there is a lot of creative things going on in the world of alternative-fuel cars, things aren’t moving fast enough, and “we want to act as a hub for that innovation by bringing a spotlight” to the field, Lindsay says. The foundation recently posted the rules of the contest, and opened them up for a 60-day comment period. They’re also in the process of finalizing the prize purse, which Lindsay says will be larger than the $10 million prize offered for the space contest. Already, they’ve received around 100 requests for letters of intent from possible contestants. As with their previous prize, the sky’s the limit.

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