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Fueling the Future

Electric cars? Hybrids that use electricity to assist gasoline engines? Fuel cells that merge hydrogen and oxygen to form water and release electricity? Clean-burning natural gas? Such new technology offers automakers—and drivers—alternatives to gasoline-powered engines. Which is the best option for the future? Or should automakers focus on improving mileage and reducing emissions in existing gasoline engines?

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Article by John Eliot, photograph by James A. Sugar
  Driving Into the Sun—Highway to Tomorrow  
  What lies down the road for drivers facing dwindling oil supplies, rising prices at the pump—perhaps $2.00 per gallon again this summer—and ever stricter clean-air demands? Automakers are spanning extremes. Twenty new gas-guzzling sport utility vehicle (SUV) models and light trucks may be rolling off assembly lines within five years. Already Ford and DaimlerChrysler each make monster SUVs about 20 feet (7 meters) long, weighing 7,000 to 12,500 pounds (3,200 to 5,700 kilos), advertised to travel 10 miles (17 kilometers) per gallon of diesel fuel or gasoline.

Yet this year DaimlerChrysler will sell to a German package-delivery company its Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell van, powered by electricity produced in an onboard system from hydrogen and oxygen. And soon Ford will unveil its electric two-seater, the Think City, like the one above. Made in Norway, the cars can reach 56 mph (90 kph) and travel 53 miles (85 kilometers) before recharging. They will join about 2,300 electric vehicles already whirring along California highways.

The contrast looks ironic. Nevertheless, all the world’s major car makers are tuning up for the future, whether they like it or not (and some of them don’t). The gun for the first lap of the sweepstakes for clean air and fuel efficiency has sounded in California, where stakes and standards are highest. Last January the California Air Resources Board (CARB) voted to require that 10 percent of all cars or light trucks sold in California by 2003 emit zero pollution or very low amounts, and that 4,650 full-size electric cars be on the market by then.

Claiming that meeting the state’s mandate would create huge production cost increases, General Motors then sued CARB in February. The outcome will echo across the U.S., because if California prevails, Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont intend to announce similar clean-car requirements.

All automakers are developing a variety of ZEVs (zero-emissions vehicles) or LEVs (low-emission vehicles) to meet California’s standards. Here’s a rundown:

* For the last decade, the ZEVs that dominated the drawing board have been electric cars, running far ahead of the pack. Now they’re on the highway, but they soon will be passed by more efficient LEV technology with engines that are quickly becoming more commercially promising.

* Using both electric motors and gasoline engines, hybrids are moving up fast. Full hybrids could run on battery power alone at low speeds, with the main engine shut down. But U.S. automakers are now zeroing in on half hybrids, which would use small motors to electrically assist gasoline engines. They would improve mileage by 10 to 20 percent but cost less to build. Ford and GM plan to offer half-hybrid SUVs by 2004.

* In the long run, fuel-cell-powered vehicles may have the inside track. They will utilize hydrogen, one of Earth’s most abundant resources. In a fuel cell, hydrogen and oxygen merge, forming water and releasing electricity. Fuel cells are two to three times as efficient as combustion engines. With a goal of producing 50 fuel-cell-powered vehicles by 2003, the California Fuel Cell Partnership includes Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler. Other industry groups are planning a network of service stations where drivers could fill up with hydrogen for their fuel cells—Hamburg, Germany, has had one for two years. With abundant hydropower, Iceland hopes to generate hydrogen for a fleet of cars, trucks, buses, even fishing trawlers.

* Natural gas (methane) powers about a million vehicles worldwide. They are so clean that one model, the Honda Civic GX, tied for first place in a list of the most environmentally friendly vehicles in the U.S. this year.

* And the old gray mare ain’t dead yet. Gasoline engines power 10 of the 13 greenest cars and trucks evaluated for 2001 by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. Electric and alternate-fuel vehicles have dominated past winners lists. While cars of the future get a lot of ink, engineers keep improving the original horse for the horseless carriage.

Ironically, the average fuel economy of U.S. cars is worse today than it was 14 years ago. The average for all passenger cars and light trucks sold each year has fallen from 25.9 miles (42 kilometers) per gallon in 1987 to 24 (39 kilometers) now. Why? All those SUVs...

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geographic magazine.


Lerner, Steve. Eco-Pioneers: Practical Visionaries Solving Today’s Environmental Problems. The MIT Press, 1997.

Perlin, John. From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. Aatec Publications, 1999.

Perrin, Noel. Solo: Life with an Electric Car. W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.

Pratt, Doug. Solar Living Source Book: The Complete Guide To Renewable Energy Technologies & Sustainable Living. Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 1999.

Quarrie, Joyce. Earth Summit 1992. The Regency Press, 1992.

Singh, Madanjeet. The Timeless Energy of the Sun for Life and Peace with Nature. Sierra Club Books, 1998.

Sperling, Daniel. Future Drive: Electric Vehicles and Sustainable Transportation. Island Press, 1995.


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