Michelin's Challenge Bibendum celebrated its sixth Birthday in October. The Challenge is billed as a rolling roadshow for environmentally positive vehicles aimed at bringing industry and policy makers together, while spreading the word publicly as well. The event was originally staged to celebrate the Michelin Mascot, Bibendum's, 100th birthday in 1998 and has now become a major fixture on the automotive calendar. This year, it was held near the city of Sonoma in the wine-growing county of the same name, north of San Francisco. As usual, it attracted a large entry drawn from mainstream manufacturers, suppliers and independents too. Jesse Crosse was there.

Many analysts believe advanced propulsion systems will develop along a logical path, with improving combustion engines being joined by greater numbers of hybrid drives during the next decade. Fuel cells should then begin to appear in significant numbers from around 2015. The Holy Grail lies in establishing a hydrogen economy, hydrogen being derived from sustainable means such as the sun, hydro-electricity, bio-mass or wind-power depending on local availability of energy sources. And although many question whether the potentially emissions-free gaseous fuel has a future, no one has yet come up with a realistic long-term alternative.

Combustion engine took centre stage
The three groups were well represented at Bibendum this year with the combustion engine still taking centre stage. Its immense potential means it will continue to meet environmental requirements through further improvements and the use of renewable fuels for at least 30 years. Many entries were powered by a variety of gaseous fuels such as CNG or LPG and the European's had arrived in force with fleets of BMWs and Audis to help spread the word that diesel can be a clean fuel too. But before diesel can be accepted in US passenger cars, America has to accept that diesel emissions, especially of particulates, can be controlled and also provide a filling station infrastructure that doesn't force car drivers to queue with trucks for fuel. One way diesel cars may make it to the US is through clean burning biodiesel, being shown by American Biofuels in a Golf and Jetta TDI. One biodiesel investor attending the Challenge thinks the future for diesel passenger cars in North America is still hard to assess. "People like to think they're environmentally conscious and drive a Hummer. So cars like the VW Touareg V10 are good news. They solve the problem of being seen to be environmentally conscious while retaining a macho image."

Both hybrids and fuel cell vehicles are underpinned by electric propulsion. In reality, battery power alone is unlikely to reappear as a form of highway transport because cost, weight and energy density restrictions are unlikely to be overcome. But billions of dollars are being spent on hydrogen fuel cells which many believe will eventually solve our transport and environmental needs. That hybrids can work has already been demonstrated by the Toyota Prius and the Honda Civic IMA. Toyota showed the new Prius, and GM its Sierra mild-hybrid pickup which incorporates a Continental-Teves, flywheel-mounted ISAD (integrated starter alternator device) to add boost to the existing 5.3-litre Vortec V8. There are no plans to downsize because engine-size is seen as critical in the marketplace. Instead, the hybrid drive will simply provide a fuel consumption improvement of between 10 and 15 percent, lifting consumption from US17mpg to almost US20mpg.

Ford showed 'HICE'
Ford's Escape SUV hybrid was notable by its absence but instead it showed two 'HICE' (hydrogen internal combustion engine) powertrains, both supercharged but one hybridised with an electric drive developed in-house. Ford sees HICE as a bridging technology between conventional ICE and fuel cell propulsion which it is also pursuing together with partners DaimlerChrysler and Ballard. In charge of the project is Bob Natkin, the man behind the Aston Martin V12 Vanquish engine and no stranger to advanced powertrains. Both engines are mounted in Ford Focus Estates. The 'standard' H2ICE version, without the hybrid drive, is equipped with a Lysholm screw-type compressor and develops 120bhp. 5kg of compressed hydrogen is stored in a Dynetek tank at 5,000psi and gives the Ford a range of 185 miles and 0-60mph performance of 12 seconds driving through a manual five-speed gearbox.

Ford Focus HICE
(hydrogen internal combustion engine)

Without any exhaust aftertreatment, the emissions are low enough to meet stringent US PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle) laws. The hybrid version, known as the H2RV, has the same engine but with a centrifugal supercharger developing 110bhp. It drives through a four-speed automatic gearbox in which the torque converter has been replaced by a wet clutch, making room for a 300-volt, 33bhp electric drive motor developed in-house. Total power output is therefore 143bhp and the Focus can reach 60mph in 11 seconds. 2.8kg of compressed hydrogen gives a range of 125 miles.

Despite the limitations of battery technology, electric drives are now maturing to fulfil a wider brief. The independent company, AC Propulsion Inc first showed it tzero sportscar concept in the late 1990s but it's still being used to demonstrate the company's core business of developing electric drive systems. Recently, the tzero's 0-60mph time has fallen from around five seconds to a ballistic 3.6 second thanks to a weight saving of 226kg gained by switching to lightweight nickel metal hydride batteries.

GM's electric wheel motors
GM's Advanced Technology Vehicles department at Torrance, near Los Angeles is developing electric wheel motors for eventual use in fuel cell vehicles and has equipped a Chevrolet S10 electric pickup truck with them for evaluation. The EV S10 already existed, driven by a 105bhp electric motor with 1,180lb ft of torque powering the front wheels. The wheel motors fit inside both rear wheels and develop 70bhp and 368lb ft torque each. Project chief, Nitin Patel, says, "the main message we want to send is that wheel motor development is now mature," dismissing the 500kg contribution the heavy lead acid batteries make to the S10's kerb weight of 2,177kg. But the S10 can still out-drag a V6 Camaro from a standing start thanks to the instant maximum torque an electric motor can deliver from standstill, and will hit 50mph in 7.5 seconds.

GM's electric wheel motors will appear first in the FX, a successor to the Hy-Wire due next year. The FX will combine the fuel cell power and drive-by-wire systems of the Hy-Wire with the wheel motors. In doing so GM will realise all the technologies first mooted in the Hy-Wire's conceptual static predecessor, the Autonomy, for the first time. At Bibendum this year, fuel cell prototypes were even more plentiful than hybrids thanks to the proximity of the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Most fuel cell developers are members of the project, including DaimlerChrysler, Ford, Toyota, GM, VW, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai and others. Cars are being tested on public roads at the rate of 500 miles per week each and the best are now so good, they feel and drive like production cars, without any compromise in passenger or storage space. DaimlerChrysler's F-Cell is the latest in a long line of A-Class based prototypes. It's one of the best, modest on-paper acceleration of 16-seconds to 60mph not born-out by the driving experience which feels much quicker. Motor power is 91bhp but the urge the driver feels is more likely due to the torque, figures for which DaimlerChrysler does not publish. But Ecostar electric drivetrain from Ballard is similar to that of the Ford Focus FCV and its motor produces 170lb ft torque.

Even a short drive in a modern fuel cell prototype reveals just how appropriate hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are as a solution to both the problems of sustainability and energy security. And security is definitely an issue that's uppermost in people's minds, especially in the US.

Speaking at the Challenge, Tom Gross, from the US Department of Energy, drew attention to the fact that 64 percent of global oil production comes from five middle eastern countries and 95 percent of the 10 to 11 million barrels a day of US oil used for transport is imported. He also said that even a huge increase in domestic production combined with improving corporate average fuel economy by 60 percent would not close the gap.

Converting filling stations to supply hydrogen 'forty times lower' than oil industry says
If there is a 'silver bullet' capable of disposing of the world's hang-up with fossil fuels (and that's debatable) it is hydrogen. The cost of converting filling stations to supply hydrogen has always been a stumbling block but now GM is challenging oil industry figures and calculates the amount will be forty times less than has been projected. Adapting 11,700 filling stations in the 100 largest US markets, it says, will cost only $10 billion and not the $400 billion oil companies have claimed. Put into perspective with other historical events, the numbers are significant. "In today's money," said a GM spokesman, "the Interstate Highways of the 1950s cost $163 billion." Recently, Larry Burns, head of GM's research and development activities, calculated that if four percent of the vehicles in North America were fuel cell powered, they could have pumped enough energy back into the grid (something GM is proposing) to have prevented the recent blackouts. It seems the case for biting the bullet (silver or otherwise) and moving towards sustainability, has just become even stronger. In the meantime, the push is now really on to clean up transport in every area, from heavy trucks to buses, and from city cars to SUVs. All were represented at Challenge Bibendum.

Jesse Crosse.