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Tomorrow's Cars Closer Than You Think At Ford

by Ali Arsham
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

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Ford Focus - Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle
Photo: Ali Arsham

Ford invited us to an event in Northern California to drive a sampling of their cars.  On hand were some of their latest offerings such as the Ford Flex.  Also present were some products from Land Rover, Mazda and Jaguar.  Anyone can go down to their local dealer and drive a Flex.  The highlight of the event was the opportunity to test drive Ford’s future cars.  These are the cars that they are working on that may end up in our garages down the road.  Most use very high technology that is still not ready to be sold to the public but it just shows how hard the industry is working in these tough times with the emphasis on fuel economy and emissions.

A great example of this movement is the Ford Focus hydrogen fuel cell electric car.  From the outside this looks like any other Focus four door with a bunch of stickers all over it.  But on the inside the technology is closer to science fiction. 

The car starts off as a 2002 Ford Focus but it is just a platform for the technology that could apply to any Ford.  The car is powered by a hydrogen fuel cell which means that it takes hydrogen and uses it to create electricity to drive an electric motor.  The hydrogen is stored in a 300 pound tank similar to a tank of Argon used for welding.  It is stored at 5000 psi but they say that it could hold much more pressure than that.  The hydrogen flows through a catalyst that strips the hydrogen into electrons and protons.  The movement of the electrons generates electricity to power the motor.  The only emission is water vapors.  The electricity is stored in Sanyo Ni-MH batteries and drives a 65kW motor (87 hp) through the front wheels.  The Focus gains some weight in the process and tips the scales at 3500 pounds which when combined with 87 hp means that there is not much in the way of performance.  The Focus can go about 200 miles on a tank of hydrogen and tops out at about 80 mph.  As a car for cross country travel this car does not make sense and will not for many years.  But as a car for commuting and driving to work, this car is fabulous.  The quiet electric motor and zero emissions make this car a superb commuter.  The biggest downside to this is the fact that finding a hydrogen filling station is difficult at the moment.  But the car companies are working with the oil companies to remedy that.  The problem is that the oil companies are playing the chicken and egg game.  They tell the car companies that they will come up with hydrogen stations when they see hydrogen powered cars (customers) on the road.  The car companies argue that there will be no customers unless there are filling stations first.

Ford Escape - Plug In Electric Hybrid Vehicle
Photo: Ali Arsham
Another car that is much closer to production was the Ford Escape Plug In Hybrid.  We all know about the current Escape Hybrid that is sold as the most fuel efficient SUV in the world.  The Escape Hybrid is the choice vehicle for politicians because it is a green vehicle that is made in America.  The Plug-In Hybrid takes it one step further.  This Escape can travel up to 30 miles on electric power alone.  So if you live close to work (and there are no big hills on your route) you can drive to work using no gasoline at all.  When you get home, plug the car in to an electric outlet and in about 8 hours the batteries will be fully charged.  When you hit a hill or put your foot down, the gasoline engine kicks in and assists the electric motor and charges the batteries at the same time.  In our driving loop that included city, highway and steep hills the Escape managed close to 80 mpg.  If the hills were not there, we could have gotten close to 120 mpg. 

The gasoline engine is a regular 2.5 liter 4 cylinder from the Escape Hybrid and using both, the Escape Plug-In Hybrid can hit 102 mph.  And this is a no compromise vehicle so the interior and exterior are the same as other Escape Hybrids with the same amount of cargo space.  The only issue here is that electricity is not free or clean.  To make electricity you have to do something and in most of the country that means burning coal.  Parts of the country use nuclear power or dams to generate power but in most cases electricity is not a great alternative.  Hydrogen seems to be a better choice in the long term but the Plug-In Escape is already on the streets in the hands of a few government bodies to test it for production in a few years.

Many people do not realize that Ford has many fantastic cars already for sale in Europe.  It seems like all the good stuff from there hardly ever makes it over here.  But they have finally decided to bring some of those cars such as the Ford Fiesta here for next year.  In Europe you can get the Ford Fiesta with a 1.3 liter engine that gets 65 mpg.  I am sure by the time we get the car here; it will get more like 35 mpg here.  That is because of several factors.  One is that the emissions are stricter in the US and the safety gear makes the cars heavier in the US.  Also, in Europe people are OK with driving a 1.3 liter Fiesta that does 0-60 in 17 seconds.  People in the US expect more in terms of performance.  Also, in the US most people want automatic transmissions that are less efficient than manual transmissions so that also hurts your fuel economy.

Seeing just a small sample of what Ford is working on is promising.  They are also working on an entirely new generation of engines called EcoBoost that should arrive starting in the fall.  These are designed to be more fuel efficient than current engines and just as powerful, if not more.  Things are happening but they are happening too slowly in part because there are so many different options for alternative fuels and each has its benefits and issues.  Only time will tell when one will become the standard as gasoline did 100 years ago.

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