Greetings from Bibendum, The Michelin Man. Click image to enlarge
Story and photos by Paul Williams
Shanghai, China – As a sickly, orange ball of a sun rose on the first morning of Michelin’s four-day Challenge Bibendum in Shanghai, you could barely see the city’s fantastic skyscrapers through the smoggy gloom.
According to the World Health Organization, seven of the 10 most polluted cities in the world are in China. So what a place to hold an exposition of “green” technology – it was both inspired and crazy.
With the theme of “Rallying together towards sustainable mobility,” the
Challenge Bibendum is meant to become a catalyst for the development of solutions to pollution and the world’s dependence on fossil fuels, Edouard Michelin, the youthful CEO of the giant tire company, explained.
This was the sixth annual Challenge Bibendum, and the first held outside Europe and North America.
In downtown Shanghai, congested roads quickly became packed with vehicles of all types (and from all eras, it seemed) as the morning wore on. Our austere Golden Dragon buses crawled and lurched through the dense traffic from the hotel to the event about 20-kilometres away.
Stoplights were regarded as recommendations at best as cars, trucks and buses jostled aggressively for position, and bicycles, loaded like pack mules, filled every fleeting gap. Pedestrians took their chances; courtesy was non-existent.
“It’s anarchy,” said one observer in our group. “Unbelievable,” said another.
And this with only 20 million vehicles registered on China’s roads, along with hundreds of millions of bicycles and scooters. Wait until 2010, when the number of motorized vehicles there increases to 140 million, all of which, of course, will need fuel.
You think gas prices are high now?
The Chinese, now responding enthusiastically to Western consumerism, are do-ers and builders and entrepreneurs, and they really like cars. Which is why all the major manufacturers are there, from Volkswagen and General Motors – plying their Santana taxis and Regal sedans – to luxury makers like BMW and Mercedes Benz, to other European and Asian companies selling and building everything and anything.
Add that to the 800 million vehicles, growing at 30 million per year, that already comprise the world’s fleet, and you can see that Bibendum, or “the Michelin Man,” as we call him in Canada has a challenge indeed.
Getting down to business, we alternated between the imposing campus of Tongji University and the stunning Shanghai International Formula 1 racetrack, both examples of Chinese engineering prowess and the country’s ability to mobilize whatever resources are required to build such monumental structures.
Participants from 45 countries, representing 57 companies along with 500 journalists, 150 vehicles and an international array of government representatives (Canada was absent) spent four days demonstrating, discussing and comparing the latest clean and safe vehicle technologies.
A “learning centre” was the location for examples of the newest fuel cells and hydrogen filling stations, battery technologies and engine management systems. Vehicles powered with everything from biodiesel (made from vegetable oil) to a steam-belching hydrogen peroxide car ran laps on the track, competed in a rally, or drove around the vast track facility.
It was, as one executive said, a “world’s fair” of green technology, although the task of ultimately settling on a practical alternative to petroleum-based fuels was seen as something that will take several decades.
Aurora Solar Car
In the meantime, company executives, government officials, Chinese VIPs and their friends and family, and the occasional journalist were thrilled to fling whatever car they could grab around the same track that Michael Schumacher drove on the month before.
Biodiesels, electric cars, fuel cell cars, hybrids and even a diesel racecar were hurled around the tricky corners with abandon. What many of the drivers lacked in helmets, preparation and ability, was made up for in the sheer delight of blowing by a zero emissions battery car with an Audi A8 turbo-diesel.
It quickly became a microcosm of the chaos downtown, until someone crashed a Ford Focus fuel cell vehicle and the track was abruptly closed.
But not for long, although company drivers occupying the passenger seat were told to keep a lid on it.
Frolicking aside, there was some serious work to do. It’s motive power that poses the most challenging problem, what with a growing number of vehicles to fuel, and fossil fuels, a non-renewable resource, expected to run out later this century.
With many new technologies still only in experimental stages, the main contenders for short-term relief – “smarter” gasoline engines, biodiesel, electric power and gasoline-electric hybrids – were all at Challenge Bibendum. Fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) were there, too, but they’re unlikely to impact the market for 10 – 20 years.
Of particular note, because it’s available now, was the Audi A2, a small, 1.2-litre diesel-powered hatchback that averages 3.0 L/100km, or 80 miles per gallon in combined city/highway driving (sadly, unavailable in Canada).
Also on-hand for testing was the Toyota Prius, now the best selling gasoline-electric hybrid, which uses a small, efficient gasoline engine in conjunction with an electric motor to power the car. Toyota announced that it will begin building the Prius in China next year.
Several electric cars and buses were present, with that technology apparently making a comeback, mainly due to new lithium batteries that significantly increase range.
In a variation on the electric-only option, General Motors announced a joint project with Chinese company SAIS to build its hybrid diesel/electric buses for that market. GM already has a fleet of hybrid diesel buses in service in Seattle, Philadelphia and other US cities.
Volvo brought its 3CC electric concept car, a sleek, visually appealing, three-seat zero-emissions vehicle that can be adapted to run on biogas or as a hybrid. One point Volvo was making with this car is that safe, clean vehicles can also be exciting.
Brightly coloured “Forever” motor scooters, powered with liquefied petroleum gas (propane, or LPG), were hard to miss. They sell for the equivalent of $1,200 in China, and like Shanghai’s fleet of 40,000 LPG taxis, produce significantly lower emissions than conventional gasoline vehicles.
The most advanced vehicles were those powered with hydrogen fuel cells, from the likes of Nissan, Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler, some of them partnering with Canada’s Ballard Power Systems, a world leader in this technology.
These vehicles use compressed hydrogen gas to produce electricity that powers a motor to drive the car. They produce no harmful emissions, but issues include a non-existent infrastructure for refuelling, and the use of platinum, a precious metal, as a catalyst in the fuel cell to create electricity.
Until those problems are solved, look for the further refinement of conventional gasoline engines, new “clean” diesels and hybrids, and a hoped-for willingness of consumers to buy them (perhaps encouraged by government incentives, both positive and negative). This will accelerate development of these technologies over the next few years, said Monsieur Michelin in a question-and-answer session.
Honda Accord wagon diesel – European model. Click image to enlarge
In the longer term, expect to see each of these power plants, along with fuel cells and fuel cell hybrids, running side-by-side until petroleum-powered vehicles gradually disappear later this century.
Gone, presumably, will be the intoxicating rumble of a potent V8, replaced with the hydrogen hiss of an FCV (perhaps the powerful ones will hiss more aggressively).
Michelin’s contribution? Tires with lower rolling resistance that reduce fuel consumption, “intelligent” tires that warn the driver if pressure is low, wheels with motors in them like those demonstrated on its Hy-Light concept vehicle, new technologies to re-use tires, and the next Challenge Bibendum in 2006, likely in Europe.