Sunday, June 05, 2005

The Future is Not Now
I'm not complaining. I have no standing for that. If technological advancement depended on me, we would be doomed to a stasis making the dark ages look like sunny days of hope. You think the chances of curing a new disease in the near future seem bleak now, just put me in charge. You think your chances of getting to the moon or mars on some kind of exotic space-cruise are remote now, make me the head of the International Space Agency and watch all effective innovation come to a grinding halt. I am the least scientific, least engineering person around.

So, I'm not saying I could do better than automotive engineers workign on Hydrogen-cell cars. But you have to admit, you thought they'd be further along by the year 2005, didn't you? Today's NYTImes reviews the newest Honda development, the FCX, as a real step forward.
Given my experience with fuel-cell prototypes that were noisy, balky and incapable of going very far between refuelings, the FCX was something of a surprise. Featuring the latest generation of Honda's own fuel cells (hundreds of them are arrayed in two multiple sets, called stacks) and a body and electric motor derived from the company's unsuccessful EV Plus battery vehicle, the FCX felt like a real car, not a high-strung test mule.
But from my reading, the dream of a hydrogen-powered car still sounds pretty distant. Kinda about the same it felt when I first remember hearing about this in the 80s. Even if you won the lottery and could afford one, the only place presently, to get refueled is in Latham, NY. Getting there from most of the country will be a bit of a problem because this highly advanced Honda still only has a range of about 190 miles. So if you want to go farther than that, you'll have to be dragged.

The FCX carried a federal combined city-highway economy rating of 57 miles per kilogram, but since the car holds less than four kilos of hydrogen - a very light gas - long cruises are a challenge. The dash includes two colorful light-bar fuel gauges, one of which displays the estimated number of miles left until the FCX needs a tow truck.

Like an execution in the morning, range-challenged fuel-cell cars concentrate the mind. As I neared the end of my loan, I constantly checked the rapidly diminishing blue bars and mentally prepared myself to get out and push.
Will they become common eventually? I'm sure. Will it happen in my lifetime--will I ever drive one of these? Probably not. And that's a real problem. Fuel emissions are ravaging the air quality, and dependence on Middle East oil is compromising our foreign policy. And our commitment to public transportation is at a near-criminal low, probably because we assume that technological advances will eventually, just in the nick of time, save us. So why spend so much money on a brand new infrastructure like a reasonable rail system, what with easily rechargeable, cheap-as-a-scooter battery-powered cars just around the corner?

As confused as I am that they can't seem to make it work, at least not efficiently, yet, it seems important to at least acknowledge that thay can't; it's time to stop waiting for science to save us from ourselves.

Still, despite the growing acceptance of the Hybrid, isn't it a bit surprising they haven't made more headway?

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