Green Driving Machines
From the outside there was little to distinguish the sleek Toyota Prius from any other car on the streets of Timmins, Ont. But when the driver turned the key, it was clear this was no ordinary sedan. The only sound as the Prius pulled away was the gentle hum of an electric motor. Known in the industry as a hybrid electric, the vehicle was in Northern Ontario early this year for cold-weather testing. With both a high-efficiency gasoline engine and an electric motor, the car can travel well over 100 km on a litre of fuel, leaving behind only a whiff of pollution.
So far available only in Japan, the Prius sells for about $30,000, a price heavily subsidized by Toyota. The company assembles 2,000 a month - a tiny fraction of the 340,000 conventional vehicles it makes in the same time. But the Prius, which uses a battery-powered electric motor at slower speeds and a gasoline engine as the car accelerates, is the world's first commercial hybrid electric. Its introduction has set a standard for the industry. Despite growing demand in North America for light trucks, industry insiders insist the future is bright for so-called clean cars. Being "environmentally friendly," says Bobbie Gaunt, chief executive officer at Ford Motor Co. of Canada, will be "the price of entry" for automakers in future.
The green machines will not arrive soon enough for some people. Experts say the number of vehicles on the planet will double to almost one billion over the next 10 years as incomes rise in countries such as China and India. At the same time, governments are committed to reducing levels of greenhouse gases, which many scientists believe are responsible for global warming. Given that auto emissions account for 14 per cent of those gases, any attempt to improve the overall situation will be fruitless unless cars and trucks find a cleaner power source.
In addition to its hybrid research, Toyota is selling an all-electric vehicle in the United States - a $45,000 battery-powered version of its RAV4 sport utility. Since December, it has sold 400 of the vehicles. And General Motors hopes to sell 500 EV1s, a sporty, two-door electric car, this year. Honda, Ford and Chrysler are also selling battery-powered vehicles, but the market is small because of their high cost and limited range - generally no more than 150 km per charge.
The future of the clean car, many analysts say, belongs to neither the battery nor the hybrid, but to the hydrogen fuel cell, a technology being developed by Ballard Power Systems of Burnaby, B.C. It creates electricity from hydrogen, a gas that can be stored in tanks or extracted from fuels such as gasoline or methanol. In Vancouver this fall, B.C. Transit plans to try out three buses that use the cell. And last year, Ford and Daimler-Benz AG, parent of Mercedes, showed their faith by investing a combined $1 billion in Ballard. "We made the investment in Ballard to help develop it to the point that it is affordable," said Gaunt.
To be successful, manufacturers of such vehicles have to solve an economic riddle: can a family car that produces virtually no pollution be powerful, comfortable and yet cheap enough to attract buyers? So far, the vehicles closest to that ideal are hybrids like the Prius. But they do have their drawbacks. "You pick up fuel economy," says Chuck Risch, technology manager with Ford's new generation vehicles program, "but you also pick up cost, weight and complexity. The batteries are heavy and expensive."
While electric vehicles are expected to become cheaper as technological hurdles are cleared, most experts believe they will be used primarily by commuters and by businesses for short-range transportation. "Our vision of the future does not include charging stations every 50 km on the highway for long-distance travellers," says Mark Amstock, project manager for Toyota's alternative fuel project. Longer trips, he adds, will likely be left to vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells.
There are plenty of skeptics. Auto consultant Jim Harbour of Troy, Mich., believes that as long as gasoline remains cheap and the range of conventional motors continues to be extended, the market for alternative vehicles will remain small. But if the economic and technical riddles can be solved, the throaty growl of the internal combustion engine may slowly fade away. "In the future," says Amstock, "when you want to go to grandmother's house, you'll take your fuel cell or hybrid. The electric vehicle will be your daily commuting vehicle or something you put your 16-year-old high-school student in." A slice of that automotive future has already been seen on the streets of Timmins.
Maclean's July 20, 1998