TCS Daily

Engines for Today, Engines for the Future

By Brock Yates - July 22, 2004 12:00 AM

Perhaps within the next decade we will witness some sort of resolution regarding the ongoing struggle within the automobile industry about exactly what sort of power plant will propel your ol' flivver in the garage. Of course the motor of the moment is the hybrid -- that quirky, gas-electric-combo favored by Honda and Toyota and so joyously celebrated by the press. To be sure, Toyota's gem-like Prius is a major hit, with orders backed up four to six months and dealers hijacking customers with as much as $5000 added to the sticker.

But Detroit seems to be in the hybrid business in a strangely diffident manner. Next year's 2005 General Motors models will feature Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks with hybrid power plants. But GM plans only 2,500 total units and those will only be available in California and Florida. Hardly a massive shift of production for a Corporation that generally pumps out new models by the hundreds of thousands.

Yet GM's modest plan seems like flooding the market when compared to DaimlerChrysler, which plans on building a mere 100 hybrid Ram pickups, and those only for selected fleet operators.

Ford, on the other hand, is in the hybrid game on a much more energetic level, with plans to produce over 4,000 of its neat little mid-size Escape SUV's with hybrid power this year. Production will ratchet up top 20,000 units in 2005.

This indicates a significant split in industry policy, with Toyota, Honda and Ford firmly committed to hybrid technology, while others are drifting in other directions. General Motors remain enthusiastic about the fuel cell, a fiendishly complex and expensive electro-chemical gadget that combines hydrogen with ambient oxygen to produce electricity and a dollop of water exhaust. On paper the system is magic and a theoretically perfect solution to brooming the hated internal combustion engine and its Middle Eastern oil moguls off the highways of the nation. But massive roadblocks remain in terms of unit cost, hydrogen production and distribution and adequate power output. Even the most optimist time-line projections span 10-20 years in the future.

Meanwhile other major automakers like DiamlerChrysler, Volkswagen and BMW embrace the potential of the diesel -- a version of the internal combustion engine that has been around in trucks, buses, military, agricultural and industrial vehicles for over 100 years. Fuel efficiency is the diesel's long suit, with savings of up to 20 percent against similar gasoline-powered versions. Until recently dirty exhaust, noise, vibration and smell have made the diesel persona-non-grata in polite company. But now major advances are being developed, especially by the German industry (where Rudolf Diesel invented his namesake engine in 1894.)

New technologies are being perfected that eliminate the diesel's major bugaboo -- Nitrous Oxide (or Nox) that heretofore poured from diesel exhausts in the form of tiny, filthy particulates.

Not only do we have advances coming in the form of fuel cells, hybrids and diesels, but the aged, ubiquitous gas-powered internal combustion engine continues to be perfected, with ultra-clean-burning, computer-controlled versions offering superb performance, low-emissions and, most important, low costs. Even with regular gasoline expected to stay around $2.00 a gallon for the foreseeable future, this power plant system will remain in play, with only the diesel showing any short-term potential for significant replacement in the marketplace.

Until simplicity, reliability, power output and low cost can be proved in such alternate power systems as the hybrid and the fuel cell, there is little question that the old internal combustion engine -- either powered by either gasoline or fuel oil -- will be with us for decades to come.


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