by Jim Kerr

A cruise on the roads around Ford’s Scientific Research Laboratory in Dearborn, Michigan gave me a preview of the future. This centre houses 240 modern laboratories, and has a staff of 1000 scientists, engineers, and technicians. Approximately half of them are working on projects related to vehicle emissions, and the vehicles I drove were ongoing research projects to reduce or eliminate tailpipe emissions.

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Th!nk City
Click image to enlarge

Smaller than an economy car, bigger than a breadbox, the Ford Think “city” is a plastic bodied two seat electric car. Already on sale in Europe, the City is now available on a lease basis in California.

Powered by a 249.5-kg nickel cadmium battery, this 1129-kg vehicle uses three-phase AC induction motor to reach a maximum speed of 90 kph. Acceleration is not breathtaking, with 0 to 50 kph times in the seven second range, but this is a full-featured vehicle including front disc/rear drum brakes, a driver’s side air bag, and a heater.

Driving the Think City is like any other automatic transmission equipped car. Turn the key to start, place the shift “switch” in drive, and step on the gas- oops! – electric pedal. There is the sound of the electric motor turning, and road noise from the tires, but what amazed me was how natural it was to sit in and drive this unconventional vehicle. Of course, electric vehicles have their shortcomings, and the most critical is range – 85 kilometres in normal city driving. On to the next vehicle.

A silver Ford Focus looked like a production unit. Open the hood and most of it looked conventional. There were only a few unusual hoses and devices tucked away to make one investigate further. Around to the trunk. Two aluminum fuel tanks wrapped in carbon fibre told a different story. This car was fueled with hydrogen!

Research engineers at the laboratory told us their vision for cars of the future will be powered by a wide variety of methods, but by the year 2010, about 90% of the vehicles will still have an internal combustion engine. Gasoline may not be the fuel of choice. There is diesel, methanol, ethanol, and of course hydrogen. Hydrogen is environmentally the fuel of choice. Hydrogen is so clean, Ford engineers had to design special fuel injectors that could operate without the lubricating components of other fuels. The technology and tooling is already in place to build hydrogen fueled internal combustion engines, so this will likely be a mid range solution.

Driving a hydrogen-fueled car is no different than any modern vehicle on the road today. Performance was similar, and even filling it is no different than filling a propane fueled car. Concerns about safety with hydrogen fuel were unfounded. When hydrogen leaks out of a container, it disperses to the atmosphere almost immediately. Because it is lighter than air, it rises, unlike propane, which can settle in low spots and reach combustible concentration levels. Another statement that gave food for thought was ” if gasoline was brought to the market today, do you think they would let individuals fill their own vehicles using open nozzles?” A very good point indeed considering the potential explosiveness of gasoline fumes.

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Ford Focus FCV

Saving the best for last, a Ford Focus sat quietly humming away. This was a fuel cell powered car. Using pure hydrogen, the fuel cell generates electricity that powers an electric motor under the hood. The humming came from computers, transformers, and cooling pumps under the hood that keep the system up and running.

This Focus is still a research project, and the model I drove left some to be desired. First of all, the fuel cell sat underneath the front seats, and the floor pan was raised considerably to accommodate it. The car was not designed for tall drivers! Then there was the performance.

It takes a few kilometres for the fuel cell to warm up and deliver peak performance, but lets just say your average bicyclist could out accelerate it. Once rolling however, the Focus FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) rolled along nicely with traffic.

It really works, and I have driven it! Fuel cell powered vehicles may be the long-term future of private automobiles. Take a litre of water, use electrolysis to remove the hydrogen (about 120 grams), and after it is used in the fuel cell, you get back almost all of the water. No emissions and a renewable energy source make fuel cell powered vehicles an exciting prospect for the future.

As a research vehicle, the Ford Focus FCV is an amazing development. As a passenger vehicle, the shortcomings will be overcome with a little time. After all, Ford tells us they will have a fuel cell-equipped car on the market for 2004.




About Paul Williams

Paul Williams is an Ottawa-based freelance automotive writer and senior writer for Autos. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).