With a population of 1.3 billion, China is regarded by western manufacturers as manna from heaven. But it is also clear that the ageing population of VW Santanas and shiny new Shanghai Buicks will one day have to be replaced by something cleaner. Jesse Crosse reports from this year's Challenge Bibendum.

Challenge Bibendum, the Michelin run showcase of future technology vehicles, decamped to Shanghai this year and based itself at the new F1 circuit in acknowledgement of the fact that if ever a location emphasised the need for sustainable mobility, then China is it. The choice of venue proved a little ironic in the end and for many the focus swung away from the vehicles being shown, to the social and economic phenomena that China has fast become.

The 'China syndrome' had another effect too, that of bringing usually coy manufacturers out of their shells. VW and Audi brought their fuel cell Hy Motion and A2 along for the first time ever, as well as a hybrid Golf research vehicle. The sudden about turn on the usual secrecy policy was reportedly brought on by pressure from the government for the company to show willing, given the substantial size of its share of the Chinese automotive market. It also gave westerners a flavour for the local point of view. Not all are convinced sustainability for Chinese people equates to individual mobility and think the future lies in massive investment in sustainable transport systems.

While that makes all sorts of sense, there are cultural implications. However grim things may look from the outside with an estimated 540 million Chinese taking to the streets on bikes each day, they do at least enjoy the benefits of private mobility in doing so and may need convincing reasons to take advantage of a proliferation in the public transport system, such as free rides. However, there is considerable enthusiasm for a technical solution to individual sustainable mobility being shown by a number of organisations in China, including universities. One particular effort from Shanghai HABO Chemistry Technology Co, based on a battered VW Santana, is powered by a 90 percent concentration of liquid hydrogen peroxide. Mixed with water in a catalytic chamber at 700C, the combination produces enough steam to drive a turbine with which to propel the car.

Ford meanwhile, has just completed 'Job One' of the more 'conventional' Focus FCV, the first of a 30 to 40 115mph cars that will be sent to government and commercial fleets in a number of US, Canadian and German cities. Compressed hydrogen gas stored at 350 bar (5,000psi) in carbon fibre tanks gives a range of only 250 miles on a good day. New 700 bar (10,000psi) tanks will increase that to a real-world 300-400 miles. But one of the biggest challenges remains that of supplying hydrogen on every street corner and for fuel cell specialists education is a key factor

Ford is also working on the development of hydrogen ICE on a number of levels including supercharged 6.3-litre V10 Triton engines fitted to F-Series pickup trucks, and the 2.3-litre 'I4' engine. One of the four-cylinder engines fitted to a Focus Estate has been in development since before lat year's Challenge, but has recently been fitted with a lean NOx trap to remove the one only toxic emission produced when burning hydrogen, NOx. The device means the Ford can better the SULEV (Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle) regulations by 80 percent with CO2 emissions put at less than one percent of an equivalent vehicle burning gasoline. To all intents and purposes, the engine is zero emission. Work is also continuing with a hybrid version using similar HICE technology.

Audi's A2 is a newcomer to the fuel cell scene although Dr René van Doorne, in charge of the project, says it is company policy not to disclose details of programmes, including how long they have been running. But the A2 is impressive nevertheless. Powered by a 'hybrid' combination of hydrogen fuel cell and battery, its powerful electric motor accelerates strongly while making hardly any sound. Lift off the accelerator and regenerative braking kicks in, the electric motor helping to slow the car while generating electricity to top up the battery.

The Ballard 902 fuel cell stack produces 63kW and the ZF-Sachs traction motor, 147bhp peak power and 88bhp continuous. The fuel cell stack is supplemented by a 40kW NiMh air-cooled battery. One outstanding feature of the A2 is the super-quiet air compressor which feeds air to the stack. Compressor noise is an on-going issue for most fuel cell developers but Van Doorn has muted the Audi's using a combination of isolation and encasing in foam. The Engineer will not say what the foam material is, only that it is "already out there." Volkswagen's Hy-Motion fuel cell car, also on show for the first time, has a 107bhp (peak) Siemens electric motor developing 230Nm torque propelling it to a top speed of 86mph. Range is 100 miles and the Hy-Motion is fuelled by compressed hydrogen stored in a 350 bar (5,000psi) Dynetek tank, a product common to several other manufacturers including Ford. The Audi and VW projects have fundamental similarities (such as the choice of fuel cell stack) but are handled by two separate teams with individual ideas on detail development, despite a third team overseeing the activities of the two. 

At the Paris Motor Show in September, Michelin showed the 'Active Wheel', housing an active suspension unit, disc brake and 40bhp electric motor. In Shanghai, the company revealed the fuel cell-powered 'Hy-Lite' concept car powered by two Active Wheels providing a total of 80bhp and developed in cooperation with the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) which provided the 30kW fuel cell system. Unusually, the fuel cell stack is fed not only by hydrogen but pure oxygen also stored in compressed form, when the popular approach is to feed fuel cell stacks with air at low pressure using a compressor. The pure oxygen route, argues Michelin, improves efficiency but there's no doubt it would prove difficult to implement in a production environment. Weighing just 850kg, the four-seater can accelerate to 62mph in 12 seconds and reach a top speed of 80mph. The fuel cell is supplemented by an ultra-capacitor from the US firm Montana, part of Maxwell Technologies, a major developer of these electrical storage devices.

Until now, Honda has been the major exponent of ultra capacitors and has developed several generations for use in its own fuel cell car, the FCX, several of which are now deployed with the LA city council and in Tokyo. Unlike a battery, a capacitor stores electrical energy mechanically and no chemical change takes place within it. It can be charged within seconds, but has a relatively low energy density, discharging in a similar timescale. Ultra capacitors work well in conjunction with fuel cells however and like that of the Honda, the Hy-Lite capacitor receives charge both from regenerative braking when the vehicle is slowing and from the fuel cell at any time when the driver is demanding less than full power from the fuel cell stack. Though ideal in this context, ultra capacitors have so far only been exploited in conjunction with fuel cells by Honda and now Michelin. This one can release in the region of 45kW for a period of 20-30 seconds, boosting acceleration significantly.

Pierre Varenne, Deputy Director of Michelin Prospective Research, explains the reasons behind his company developing a fuel cell vehicle. "Michelin has a major role to play in the field of sustainable mobility. We want to understand what will be required to in 10 to 15 years when raw materials and energy sources will be very different to those we are familiar with today. Michelin wants to demonstrate that it is an industrial group which can control different technologies, not just in theory, but in reality." With that in mind, Varenne confirms that Michelin not only developed the Hy-Lite but also the drive-by-wire CONCEPT as well as the Active Wheel itself, in house using existing resources.

Volvo's 3CC concept houses three people comfortably and four at a stretch, making the point that it is wasteful to own a larger car when a smaller one will do. "It is a cool concept for the young couple or family," said Volvo director, Dan Werbin. The 3CC could be powered by petrol, diesel or hybrid engines, fuel cells or batteries thanks to a hollow floor housing the relevant hardware. Volvo is already selling S60s in the US designed to meet California's most stringent PZEV (partial zero emission vehicle) regulations. Astonishingly, the exhaust is so pure it is cleaner than the air entering the engine.

Peugeot's Quark is a futuristic quad aimed at the urban commuter. A beautiful piece of work crafted from aluminium with bespoke alloy wheels, the Quark is battery-powered but in reality the battery would be swapped for the inevitable fuel cell. Rather than spend time refilling the nine litre hydrogen tank, it's mounted on a removable rack and can be replaced with a fresh one holding enough hydrogen to drive about 80 miles. You can choose either high speed or economy mode to increase the range and a PDA acts as the key, containing all the Quark's instruments in electronic form as well as GPS navigation and phone.

Volkswagen also showed off its skills at hybrid technology with the diesel-electric Golf Eco Power. The diesel engine runs on Volkswagen's sustainable Sun Diesel made from biomass and with extra help from the electric motor, CO2 emissions are extremely low. But unlike Toyota, whose petrol-electric Prius focuses almost entirely on economy, the Mk IV Golf's minder, Lars Hofman, says "we have to show a performance advantage as well as an environmental one."

Power comes from a modified version of the 1.4-litre three-cylinder diesel fitted to the Lupo 3L producing 113bhp and 184lb ft torque. But during acceleration the electric motor boosts that to 133bhp and 221lb ft torque, enough to take the Golf to 62mph in 11 seconds and a top speed of 122mph. The Eco Power is fun to drive pulling solidly from low rpm, accelerating hard then easily topping 100mph. The DSG dual clutch gearbox works in automatic mode only so there are no paddles to shift manually, but it is incredibly smooth. Three cylinders are an acquired taste though, and the engine ticks over with a kind of lumpy, offbeat warble. It will be a few years before something like it arrives in UK showrooms but Hofman says confidently, "VW is beginning to like the idea of hybrids more and more."

Where Bibendum goes from here is uncertain, but there's likely to be another event in two years time. What could have once been judged as an effective way for a tyre company to gain some publicity, has grown into a serious meeting of minds for the world's manufacturers and the best global opportunity to communicate the importance of sustainable mobility to the world's media. In the public domain, the subject is still surrounded by a degree of cynicism but when you see some of the engineering skills, freed of short-term commercial constraints, at first hand, it's hard not to believe that the effort to introduce rocket science-based propulsion systems to the world's roads may one day succeed.

Auto market intelligence
from just-auto

• Auto component fitment forecasts
• OEM & tier 1 profiles & factory finder
• Analysis of 30+ auto technologies & more