TCS Daily

The ICE Age Isn't Over

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - June 13, 2003 12:00 AM

How soon will you be driving a hydrogen-powered car?

Toyota, which has already run ads trumpeting its hydrogen cars as "now on the road and ready-to-drive," actually has only a half dozen hydrogen fuel cell cars - extremely expensive prototypes - driving around in the U.S. and Japan.

Honda and Daimler-Chrysler have a handful of hydrogen cars operating, chiefly in California.

General Motors, which has reportedly spent over a billion dollars on hydrogen fuel-cell research, has expressed "hopes" of selling a million hydrogen cars a year by 2015.

We'll see.

Hydrogen is a ubiquitous but elusive element. It raises tantalizing hopes (a fuel whose only emission is water) but it presents mind-bending problems. It's difficult and expensive to produce. It's difficult and expensive to store. It's difficult and expensive to dispense safely into a vehicle (the refueling ritual at present usually involves donning a special antistatic lab coat to help prevent sparks and plugging a fuel tank pressure monitor into the car before pumping hydrogen).

But a lot of greenies are "demanding" that we move on to the "hydrogen economy," and especially to cleaner hydrogen cars. The big stick with which to enforce this demand is, of course, that old black magic wand - the government. But some energy experts are not at all sure that even with "incentives" hydrogen can become economically viable. Buford Lewis, who heads fuels development for Exxon Mobil Corp., told the Wall Street Journal, "the verdict is still out on whether hydrogen will ever become a mainstream fuel".

Hydrogen enthusiasts keep talking about the "chicken and egg" problem. There are no hydrogen cars because there is no retail fueling infrastructure for them, and there is no hydrogen fuel infrastructure because there aren't enough hydrogen cars to warrant it.

Hydrogen will become a "mainstream fuel" when and if hydrogen power proves itself to be practical. That's practical, as in gasoline-powered-internal-combustion-engine-practical. Let's take a minute and look back at when and how the internal combustion engine - the ICE in auto techie parlance - vaulted from hare-brained contraption to the globally dominant power plant for personal transportation.

Up From Steam

The engines of N. A. Otto, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz were the fruition of centuries of theorizing and experimenting with the concept of internal combustion. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, engineers, mechanics and inventors of every stripe here and in Europe took the concepts of these three Germans and brought about steady improvements in the reliability and practicality of the ICE.

But as the enthusiasm for "motor cars" grew, there were two strong rivals to the ICE - steam and electric power.

Steam engines, first used in stationary industrial applications, had been the proven and practical form of power for ships and railroad trains for many decades by the time the automobile came into being. Several French automakers were offering steam vehicles as early as 1888. But it was a pair of American twins, Francis and Freeland Stanley, of Newton, Mass., who advanced the popularity of steam cars by their machines' sheer performance.

By the time the Stanley Steamer was introduced in 1902, the reputation of the brothers' earlier hand-built cars afforded it instant respect. At this time, American ICE cars were improving rapidly but still had not completely shaken off reputations for being noisy, smelly, vibrating contraptions - hard to start, hard to keep running reliably. The Stanley Steamer, on the other hand, was serenely smooth and quiet. It was also incredibly powerful and capable of then unheard of speeds.

In fact, one of the most remarkable cars in automotive history was the "Wogglebug," a Stanley Steamer with a specially built, ultra-streamlined body. It looked something like a modern fiberglass kayak or canoe turned upside down on a four-wheel frame. The car was taken to Daytona Beach in 1906 and with no sound but that of the sand hissing beneath its tires, it covered the measured mile at 127.66 mph; a stunning performance by a stunning car.

The Stanley's reputation grew, even as other steam rivals held their own - the White, the Morse, Ormond, Keene, Victor and Waltham among them. A White Steamer led President Teddy Roosevelt's inaugural parade in 1905. And in 1907, the first White House official car, ordered by President William Howard Taft, was a White Steamer.

White advertised its steam cars in 1909 as "noiseless, odorless, free from vibration," providing "perfect flexibility" and "supreme reliability."

But Steamers were expensive and they had big problems. They took a long time to start (they had to get up a "head of steam") and they tended to literally run out steam (water) too quickly. Taking a trip in an early steamer required a lot of forethought and preparation. They were high maintenance vehicles, replete with a boiler, piping, valves etc. Some of them took almost an hour to get up enough steam to hit the road. And after about 50 miles of travel they had to have their water tanks replenished.

Then along came a steam genius named Abner Doble. Intent upon making the best steam car in the world, he attacked the steam engine's weaknesses and eliminated them. His perfected steamers could start up in less than two minutes. They were very fast, powerful and impressive. And they could travel an astonishing 1500 miles on one tank of water. But Dobles were very expensive, often sporting huge custom bodies and costing well north of $10,000 when luxurious Packards or Cadillacs could be had for less than half the price.

Electric Dreams

Electricity had begun to change the world forever in the late 1800s and an electricity craze (employing it for everything from stoves to hairbrushes) was still on when electric powered cars came into being. Many electric vehicles vied for customers. The Baker, Detroit, Studebaker, and Rauch & Lang were among the best known.

Like the steamers, electric cars offered absolute silence and vibration-free driving. They didn't require hand cranking to start. There was no clashing of gears as one negotiated the pre-syncromesh transmissions, no attention to "advancing the spark," oiling, lubrication, or radiator coolant. As one early ad noted, the electric driver's "mind is freer" because he "is not his car's slave."

But the same drawbacks that plague modern electric cars hobbled the earlier models. Hills were hell. Pulling up a grade drained the immensely heavy batteries very quickly. And the electric motors small enough to fit in a car lacked much power. They lacked something else, too - male driver appeal. Electrics were among the first cars to have completely enclosed bodies at a time when motoring for many meant braving wind, dust and all the elements in an open tourer while wearing gauntlet driving gloves, tight fitting cap and goggles.

Electrics, on the other hand, were fit for gliding along flat urban boulevards. They were fastidious cars, and they soon became known as women's cars at a time when car buyers and drivers were predominantly male. The makers of electrics at first tried to counter this trend. A 1919 magazine ad for the Rauch & Lang (by then called the "Raulang") trumpeted, "More men now prefer the Raulang!" A Baker Electric ad tried the straight technology appeal to males, emphasizing the car's "shaft drive bevel gear" transmission, which was "in accordance with the practice of all high grade gasoline motor car manufacturers."

But attempts to change the electrics' feminine image didn't work. A Baker ad a year later took the high road: "The social prestige of a Baker Electric is the result of years of refined usage by women who want and will pay for the best."

The ICE Age

Meanwhile, the learning curve on gasoline powered cars seemed almost straight up. The innovations in the first two decades of the 20th century were truly breathtaking. The ICE became ever more powerful, quiet, economical and reliable. The process of changing gears became easier. "Sliding gear" transmissions were introduced and improvements in clutches moved steadily toward smoother and smoother shifts. (The first car with an automatic transmission - operated by centrifugal force - was the 1905 Sturtevant. The first syncromesh stick transmission was in the 1928 Cadillac.)

Meanwhile, a petroleum industry that had been growing since the end of the Civil War (providing such products as kerosene for lamps and stoves) was poised to provide ever-improved and refined fuel for the burgeoning numbers of ICE cars.

But perhaps the biggest hurdle to universal acceptance of the ICE was getting them started. Generally, you had to get out in front of the car and crank the engine over by hand. This was not a particularly enjoyable part of "motoring," especially in a driving rain or on a freezing cold morning. Many women, and more men than cared to admit it, found cranking difficult, disagreeable and dangerous. Many motorists suffered broken bones or worse when engine compression sent a crank suddenly kicking back on them.

The industry worked incessantly on this problem, coming up with all kinds of in-car starters employing compressed air, electricity, captured exhaust gases, even acetylene. In 1912, Cadillac introduced its ingenious combination electric starter motor and generator developed by Charles F. Kettering. It was and still is one of the greatest advances in automobiles - a practical, reliable "self-starter."

In-car starting proved to be the final blow to steam and electric rivals. Even the wealthy owner of a superb Doble had to sit at the wheel of his car for more than a minute before he could begin to move. But the owner of a Buick or Chevrolet could simply get in, give it some gas, press the starter (usually a floor pedal at first) and be on his way.

The internal combustion engine proved to be more ingenious than even its early developers appreciated. Its qualities should stand as a lesson for those trying now to "practicalize" hydrogen power. ICEs proved easy to build, amazingly rugged and forgiving. What's more, they were incredibly flexible. That is they could be made larger or smaller - capable of producing greater power or providing adequate power with very high economy.

They proved a tinkerer's delight. You could fool with them, soup them up, coax them back to some semblance of life in an emergency so you could limp home. The basic schematic - air and fuel sucked into a chamber, the mixture compressed and ignited causing rapid expansion of the burning gases - proved so predictable and reliable that automotive engineers got a little lazy. Gas was cheap, so if you wanted more power you just built the engine a little bigger. There was little incentive to improve the efficiency of the ICE, and its development hit a plateau after the general introduction of the high compression engine in the late '40s and early '50s.

But now - in the wake of higher fuel prices, gas shortages (mostly phony) and huge efforts to reduce tailpipe emissions - the ICE is on its second wind and it is a wind of hurricane force. Both diesel and gasoline ICEs are a far cry from their ancestors. Advances in electronic engine controls and development of catalytic converters (first conceptualized in 1899!) have led to ICEs with more horsepower, vastly improved fuel economy, rising operating efficiency, vastly lower emissions and, amazingly, lower cost as a portion of an auto's total price.

Hydrogen power must prove itself not just against the ICE, but against a new blossoming of ICE innovation marked by such soon-to-be-commonplace advances as infinitely variable valve timing and continuously variable transmissions. These two improvements alone bid to give large, powerful cars huge increases in efficiency and fuel economy without compromising emissions standards.

Can hydrogen power match the ease of manufacture, flexibility, reliability, affordability, durability and performance of ICEs? If it can, there will be no need for government subsidies and coercive legislation. The market will rush to hydrogen. But it is a very big "if."

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