Fuel Cells May Be the Next Thing under Your Hood

Published October 1, 1997

Two automotive giants are quietly leading the way into what they believe is the next-generation automobile engine: the fuel cell.

Germany’s Daimler Benz and America’s General Motors are already contemplating a world in which the internal combustion engine will have gone the way of the horse and buggy. What has riveted their attention is the fuel cell, the high-tech engine that turns hydrogen into electricity. Though the only vehicle currently using the fuel cell is the space shuttle, engineers in Detroit and Stuttgart have other ideas.

Industry observers agree that Daimler leads the automotive pack in developing fuel cell technology. Last spring, Daimler announced that it planed to sell 100,000 fuel-cell-powered cars in 2005. The German luxury car maker makes no secret of its intention to replace the internal combustion engine with the low-polluting fuel cell.

In the U.S., General Motors is spending $500 billion? million? a year on research into electrically powered vehicles and introduced its battery-powered EVI last year. Only a couple of hundred EVIs have been sold, and GM expects to continue to lose money on its battery-powered cars until the technology improves and consumers get more accustomed to the notion of driving without gasoline. While GM continues to try to rid its EVI of bugs, company officials, like their rivals at Daimler, are looking toward the fuel cell.

“The technology that ultimately stands the best chance of to be a universal replacement for the internal combustion engine is the fuel cell,” Robert Purcell, who heads GM’s electric vehicle operations, recently told Investor’s Business Daily. “But fuel cell technology is still years away.”

The biggest challenge facing Daimler, GM, and other automakers is getting the costs of fuel cells down to a level where they can be put into production on a competitive basis. The cells must also be made smaller, so they can fit under the hood, and will require a vast, national network of methane filling stations.

Officials at Daimler and GM are convinced those obstacles can be overcome. They also know they had better hurry. Toyota, Chrysler, Ford, and Honda are rushing to close the gap.