Anyone who recalls waiting in gas lines in the 1970s and the years that U.S. automakers took to decide that Americans preferred driving to waiting will be heartened by the recent news from Detroit: Large automakers plan to compete with their European and Asian counterparts to produce practical alternatives to the internal-combustion engine.
The immediate problem this time is not a surfeit of fuel but of fresh air. Long before the global warming talks in Kyoto, automakers the world over began experimenting with batteries and fuel cells that would greatly reduce or eliminate the need for the burning of gasoline and its byproduct, carbon dioxide. Test models have been available for a few years; Japanese automakers this fall began selling a half-dozen models powered by alternative energy systems.
Many of the new cars are a compromise. Rather than relying on batteries alone, which have limited mileage ranges, the new vehicles include small gas engines that still allow them to get 65 to 70 miles per gallon. Their introduction and sale over the next few years could reduce smog nationwide while greatly helping states meet tougher federal clean-air guidelines. The possibility of guidelines based on talks begun at Kyoto should make the cleaner cars even more attractive.
Twenty-five years ago, U.S. automakers watched Japan deliver to Americans what they wanted — cars with better fuel efficiency and, later, good mileage, dependability and a little zip. It took years for Detroit to respond. Not this time. Ford’s announcement last month that it would join with Daimler-Benz of Germany and Ballard Power Systems of Canada to produce a fuel-cell car was only one of several encouraging signs. Even the disappointing sales of General Motor’s electric car, the EV1, could be seen as a positive sign. At least now, the company is in the game instead of on the sidelines, as it was a generation ago.
The final shape of the power source for cars in the next decade is anybody’s guess. The encouraging news is that automakers have made serious commitments to building cleaner, more efficient cars. Even better, U.S. makers are trying to keep up with the world competition.