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When I watch the world's largest automotive companies struggle to build adequately fuel-efficient vehicles, they seem like large, dumb animals being tormented by cruel animal trainers. Few would enjoy the sight of a bear being taught to ride a bicycle or a Lipizzaner being made to dance. As I talked to overworked and bleary engineers and concept designers at the Detroit Auto Show this month, I could almost smell the cattle prods.

While there are enthusiastic environmentalists working for Ford, GM, Honda and Mercedes, for the most part the mission of fuel-efficiency is undertaken with something like gleeless resolve. It is understandable: Not many outside the vehicle-engineering community understand how difficult clean transportation is. In terms of sheer technical throw weight, the mission is many times more complicated than anything Apollo did. And just as in Apollo, the clock is ticking.

In 1993, the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), a shotgun wedding between the domestic automakers and the government, declared that by the year 2000, manufacturers would be required to roll out their prototypes for a five-passenger sedan that gets 80 miles per gallon without sacrificing safety, affordability, performance or utility. This goal--roughly comparable to getting a roadgrader to go from 0-60 mph in six seconds--is the golden threshold for PNGV.

And so, in Detroit, we saw the results of all that research.

GM rolled out its Precept vehicle, a trapezoidal/crystalline-shaped vehicle powered by a dual-axle, parallel hybrid propulsion system. An electric motor powers the front wheels and a small, highly efficient gas engine powers the rear. The key to the Precept is that it has multiple systems to see that not a single erg or joule of energy is wasted.

Like the Honda Insight, which I reviewed here some time ago, the Precept uses a permanent magnet motor for a variety of functions, including starting, generating power under deceleration and braking, and assisting the gas motor under heavy loads. The computerization necessary to make the Precept work (or the Insight, which is actually on the market) is dizzying.

The Precept's unique shape is critical to its fuel-efficiency. This vehicle turns in a drag coefficient of 0.163, the lowest I have ever seen. Compared to the Precept, the Ferrari 360 Modena is a rolling billboard of aerodynamic resistance. Critical to this effort is the Precept's flat underbody, clever air venting through the vehicle, and a consistent ride height controlled by air springs. If a vehicle maintains the same height over the road surface, the car's shape can be tuned for least wind resistance. The Precept doesn't use conventional outside mirrors, relying instead on dual rear-facing cameras.

Weight is also an enemy of fuel-efficiency. The Precept is made of advanced cast- and extruded-aluminum members and carbon fiber. It weighs about half what a normal five-passenger sedan weighs.

Over at Ford, the story is much the same with its vehicle, the Prodigy. Ford is a bit further along in its development of fuel-cell technology, however. Ford trotted out its design for a gasoline reformer fuel cell which converts gasoline into hydrogen and water vapor. Fuel cells effectively eliminate point source pollution, though there are a number of intractable technical problems.

And one very intractable industrial-political problem. This is where I grow frustrated and angry at the automotive industry. Converting hydrogen into electricity and water vapor is no trick at all. Folks do it in college classes all the time. The difficulty currently lies in the source of hydrogen. Automakers will tell you that they must develop a means to use gasoline in fuel-cell cars. This requires a gasoline reformer be on board or at least be at the pump. A gasoline reformer is a very expensive, heavy and high-temperature piece of equipment.

But the fact is, there are better and simpler ways to go about fuel cells. The storage technology was developed two years ago by scientists at Johns Hopkins University. With this storage technology--essentially a bottle made of a carbon-epoxy weave layered with fiberglass and foam padding--cars can safely carry hydrogen on board. These bottles can withstand drops of several stories and can be shot with a 30.06 without exploding. There would be almost no chance of a Hindenburg-like fire with such a bottle.

The automakers reject vaporous hydrogen because, they say, there is no infrastructure to support it. And this is true, because the petroleum industry refuses to support this technology. Having spent a century building up its own infrastructure for delivering a liquid fuel, the oil industry sees no reason why it should not be allowed to amortize its investment.

I've had conversations with oil executives on this subject, and they as much as admit they are sand-bagging vaporous fuels--which would be much cheaper, cleaner, quicker to market, easier to engineer for--because they don't want to convert the infrastructure. They hide behind the argument that they are simply giving the public what it wants, and if the demand for vaporous hydrogen becomes insistent, then the oil industry will respond.

This, of course, is not how technology works as a commodity. No one is clamoring for high-definition TV, for example; yet as it becomes more feasible, manufacturers push it onto the market, where people are discovering its virtues. But the petrochemical business is the least responsible and responsive, the most flagrantly indifferent to issues of the environment, of any big business. Carmakers would love to simplify the fuel-cell effort, if only the oil industry would cooperate. It won't.

The solution? The oil and gas industry in America must be required to spend a percentage of income on vaporous gas infrastructure, just as the government required the automakers to make fuel-efficient cars. Can such a measure be passed in a Congress awash in oil money? That depends, again, on consumer demand.

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