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The future is here

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In a speech posted at the invaluable EVWorld.com, renewable energy advocate Scott Cronk decries the demise of the battery-powered electric car (it was almost a stillbirth, given how few were sold or leased). Cronk notes that when General Motors asked for its battery-powered EV-1s back from customers, many (celebrities like Jay Leno included) didn’t want to give them up. Sure, Scott, but only 600 people were actually willing to lease the car, which had a range of only 90 miles.

In Albany, N.Y, last week, journalists had a chance to drive the environmentally friendly vehicles GM will begin introducing this year. None of them is a battery-powered EV, though batteries play a big part in all of them.

The cars are hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles. GM says it wants to be the first car to profitably sell a million fuel-cell cars. It also plans to introduce no fewer than 12 hybrid models. These cars range from highly experimental (the Hy-wire fuel-cell car) to pre-production (hybrid versions of the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra). The pickups, which offer 110-volt plugs that allow the trucks to act as generators, will be on the road in late 2003. Don’t expect to see fuel-cell cars on the road until 2015.

The chance to drive the Hy-wire was the clincher in getting me up to Troy, N.Y. Not only is it the world’s first fully engineered fuel-cell design, but it also sports drive-by-wire, steer-by-wire and brake-by-wire technology. In person, the Hy-wire looks very cool and futuristic (dig those rear-view cameras replacing wind-trapping mirrors) but it’s also plainly a prototype. The seats are as hard as rocks and the rear windows don’t go down.

It was surprisingly easy to adjust to accelerating, braking and steering with twin handgrips that looked like they belonged on a video game. Twisting the grip sends the vehicle forward; squeezing it activates the brakes. The steering feels rough and heavy at low speeds, but lightens up under load.

The Hy-wire has no conventional dashboard, and the few instruments slide around on a movable stalk that could accommodate left- or right-hand drive. Stretch your legs out and they’re extending into the "engine compartment" — all of the Hy-wire’s powertrain is contained in an 11-inch-thick "skateboard" chassis that could actually carry any one of many body designs.

A truly intriguing technology, displacement on demand, uses electronics to selectively shut down half of a car’s cylinders for an 8- to 10-percent fuel savings. This is GM’s second go-round with the concept, having disastrously tried it out with the Cadillac 8-6-4, circa 1981. Modern engine management will make it work now, says GM. It certainly worked very well in Troy. Switching between six and three cylinders was practically seamless. GM will introduce it in mid-sized SUVs next year.

The company has several different hybrid systems, including a dual-electric-motor system that should yield 40 mpg in smaller applications like the Saturn VUE. A milder belt alternator starter system yields a 12- to 15-percent fuel savings, and will be seen in the 2006 Chevrolet Equinox and 2007 Chevy Malibu. Both impressed with their seamless ability to shut off at stoplights, then instantly restart when the driver’s foot left the brake pedal.

GM already has one hybrid on the market, a transit bus whose system was developed by the Allison division. Some 20 are already in bus fleets, in Hartford, Portland, Ore., and Seattle, among others. Seven mpg may not sound like much, but conventional buses get four! More importantly, the hybrid bus offers a 90-percent reduction in diesel-generated particulate matter and carbon monoxide. If GM can actually sell 1,500 by 2007, that will be a tangible benefit for our beleaguered environment.

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