January 27, 2008
I think we are in the same place, automotively, that we were 100 years ago, trying to work out what our fuel source of the future is going to be. At the turn of the last century, at least here in America, petrol, steam and electric had about 30% of the car market each. A lot of people thought that electric would be the big winner because those cars were the least fussy and easiest to start. But they didnít have the range.
One of the other things that caused the demise of the electric car, since they were so easy to drive, was that women loved them. They were built quite froufrou with fancy interiors.
My 1919 Baker electric is basically a womanís shopping cart. Itís got a make-up kit in it and itís got a mirror and itís got a flower vase. Consequently, in the same way that men can claim they donít want to buy a Mazda MX-5, itís hard to sell a guy a womanís car. So the electric car just went off on its own little road.
The thing that put the petrol car on the map was the invention of the self-starter. One day Charles Kettering, an engineer, was going down the street in Detroit and saw a man walk over to a woman whose car had stopped and offer to start the car for her. But when he grabbed the handle and gave it a pull it started so violently that his hand came around and punched him in the jaw, breaking it. The man went to hospital and died of an infection.
This affected Kettering so much that he went back to his engineering company and made an electric starter. That pretty much sealed the fate of the electric car because petrol cars became so easy to start.
I have magazines from the late 1920s saying Americaís gasoline reserves would be used up by 1936, so car makers were looking at alternatives even after the petrol engine had made its mark. Henry Ford meant for the Model T to run on ethanol. His idea was that farmers could grow their own ethanol and then use it to power their cars.
With gasoline power came emissions. They knew that back in the 1920s and 1930s. Half a century on, it was really bad. When I came to Los Angeles in the 1970s they would have, in the summer especially, 80, 90, sometimes 100 ďsmog daysĒ per year Ė an alert advising you not to go outside and do strenuous exercise because the air was so bad. Since catalytic converters, weíve hardly had one. Not that the air is great, but itís a lot better than it used to be, so for people to say there hasnít been progress just isnít true.
When I was a kid, if you wanted to kill yourself you drove your dadís í59 Cadillac into the garage, you shut the door, you started the engine and you were dead in 20 minutes. Now youíd probably starve to death before getting asphyxiated.
The gasoline engine is cleaner than ever, but nothing compared with hydrogen power. I helped BMW to introduce the hydrogen car seven or eight years ago. We did a rather dramatic demonstration where I drove the car up onto a platform. I let it run and put an empty glass under the exhaust pipe. I spoke for about half an hour and when I finished I shut off the car and drank the water that was in the glass. It wasnít the best-tasting water Iíd ever had but it certainly wasnít bad for me. You can tell people about parts per billion and that kind of stuff, but when they see water come out of a tailpipe and someone drinks it, then itís a case of, ďOkay, thank you, I get it now.Ē
For the past few days I have been driving BMWís latest 7-series hydrogen car. There is some terrific technology there. It makes plenty of power for its size; the only thing that has limited it is the choice of fuel. This is a flex-fuel vehicle. It runs on either hydrogen or petrol. If you run out of hydrogen you press a button and it goes to petrol. Iíve been running it on hydrogen just to see what itís like. It stores the hydrogen at -253C. Itís kept extremely cold so that it becomes a liquid. The trick of course is keeping it cold. Iím told that the tanks are so well insulated that if you poured a cup of hot coffee into them in July, come November it would still be too hot to drink.
For now the disadvantage is that there is always a certain amount of hydrogen bleed-off as the liquid turns to gas. That means that if you let the car sit for an extended period of time, eventually the hydrogen would run out because it escapes. Itís deliberate. The hydrogen, as it escapes, keeps everything cold.
The nice thing about this car is that it is a fully functioning automobile. It had sat nav, CD, iDrive etc. Itís not one of these test mules that just has what it needs and nothing else. As far as power goes, itís a V12, so itís maybe down 20% at the most on a petrol car. I donít think you could tell the difference really. If you got into it right now and drove it, it would not seem any different from a normal car.
Most people have heard of hydrogen but have no idea what it is or what it looks like in a vehicle. They say, ďHey, that looks just like my car. And it runs on hydrogen? Wow!Ē Thereís no visible sign other than a hydrogen filler cap and a gas cap. And thereís a small vent in the roof to let out the hydrogen.
BMW wonít let me park it indoors, for insurance reasons. I think itís overkill. People hear ďhydrogenĒ and they think ďHindenburgĒ. A lot of people think the Hindenburg caught fire because of the hydrogen. In fact the Hindenburg burnt because of the cellulose paint on the outside. When you see the famous footage of the Hindenburg burning, you see it burning in a perfect outline. If the hydrogen had exploded there would have been a fireball, but it came down with its structure intact.
The first time I drove a hydrogen car there was a police car in front, one behind and one on either side because it was such a valuable car.
Now BMW has a fleet of them out there and it gives them to idiot comedians and other people to see what they think of them.
Itís seamless going from gas to hydrogen. You cannot tell the difference. Itís viable but itís expensive. I think youíll see it in the years ahead. Thereís no hydrogen infrastructure right now. Itís got to be one of those things like when John Kennedy said weíre going to the moon, long before 1969. Everybody works on it and gets it done.
The amount of interest I get when I drive the car is great. People give me the thumbs-up, they ask questions, they want to know all about it. I donít know what it will take to get people to move on this Ė gasoline at $5 a gallon maybe Ė but there does seem to be genuine interest and people do seem to be gravitating towards it. Itís a bit like VHS and Betamax: which one is going to win? The fuel cell looks interesting; the Chevy Volt electric car looks possible too. The nice thing about the hydrogen car is itís all existing technology.
I think weíll still be running gasoline in 25 years. Mercedes and BMW have some extremely clever dynamo-starter deals where you pull up to a light and if youíre idling for more than three seconds the engine quietly shuts off. Then you open the accelerator and it quietly starts and you pull away. I think things like that will get more and more efficient.
There are cars in Europe right now that blow the doors off hybrids in terms of mileage: three-cylinder Volkswagens and things like that. They get 60 or 70mpg. Hybrids are okay for the city. Theyíre really not that good on the highway; in fact theyíre worse than some petrol cars. I think theyíre a stop-gap and I think theyíre fascinating technology because they get people interested and you have to take these things one step at a time.
The amount of interest in this car from what appear to be noncar people as it sits out right there shows it really is problem over, although, obviously, there are problems with infrastructure and all that other stuff. If hydrogen was available, pollution and the Middle East problem would be solved. Hydrogen is the tip of the iceberg. I was reading today about a guy at one of the universities here who, using radio waves, was able to set fire to sea water. Unbelievable. You think, wow, thereís a fuel. Three-quarters of the world Ė free fuel, look at that. You donít know where itís going to come from.
I think itís quite smart to look at the car and decide whatís wrong with it. The biggest problems with the car are the pollution and where the fuel comes from. If you solve those two difficulties, you donít really have a problem with the automobile any more Ė except for parking and congestion and things like that. So what theyíve done is taken the most troublesome part of the car, the fuel source, and changed it. If you can come up with a better fuel, thereís nothing wrong with the internal combustion engine. Thatís what BMW has done.
BMW Hydrogen 7
5972cc, 12 cylinders
260bhp @ 5100rpm
287 lb ft @ 4300rpm
19.2mpg (hydrogen) / 20mpg (petrol)
5.2g/km (hydrogen) / 325g/km (petrol)
0-62mph: 9.5sec. Top speed: 143mph
125 miles (hydrogen) 310 miles (petrol)
£5m (but not on sale)
Source: BMW Hydrogen 7 review | New Car Reviews - Times Online