Geneva Motor Show: Fuelling Debate

High Oil Prices and Global Warming Have Hastened The Development of Alternative Fuels on the Highway

News | Marlies Dachler | April 2008

Alternative fuel cars of all sizes were the focus of the Geneva Motor Show (Photo: Kieran Gale)

For the annual Salon International de l’Auto, held in Geneva from March 6 until 16, car lovers from all over the world invaded the small Swiss city. However, this year’s 78th homage to the art of car design and innovation was not so much about glamour, luxury and sport, but a competition about fuel-efficiency and carbon dioxide reduction.

Making my way through the entrance doors of the Palexpo exhibition building, waves of heat hit my face as swarms of people were rushing in all directions. Chaotically pacing back and forth between Bentleys, Bugattis, Maseratis, and Alfa Romeos, they fought to get the best possible view of their dream cars.

I immediately spotted an Alfa Romeo Spider – the motor show’s convertible of 2006 – and dragged my companion in the direction of an Italian dream on four 18-inch wheels. Shielded in the driving seat from the other visitors, I was privileged to a private audience with the car. Caressing the leather steering wheel with my left hand and the chrome gear knob with my right, I closed my eyes and felt the airstreams on my cheeks, letting my hair dance while speeding over the tarmac of a seaside motorway.

Suddenly a man interrupted my reverie, brushing the car’s windshield with a feather duster and polishing its radiator grill with a bit of yellow chamois. Reluctantly, I reached for the door handle, and climbed out, heading off in search of more environmentally friendly cars.

With oil prices over $100 per barrel and the effects of global warming knocking on the door, the shift towards alternative fuel seems inevitable. While, as recently as a few years ago, only large executive cars like the BMW 7 Hydrogen or the Lexus LS Hybrid that cost almost €100,000 ran on alternative fuels, today smaller and more affordable cars are being brought out.

Hybrid technologies are slowly but surely establishing themselves on the market. The best selling hybrid, a vehicle that runs on two or more sources of power to provide propulsion, is the Toyota Prius Hybrid, of which 369 were sold in Austria in 2007, and 22,000 the previous year in the European Union as a whole. Its engine system, the Hybrid Synergy Drive (HSD), also used by Lexus and Nissan, consists of an electric and a petroleum motor, using whichever is more efficient, and storing generated (or recovered) energy in the batteries. As a parallel hybrid, its fuel tank and gas engine, batteries and electric motor can connect to the transmission independently. With CO2 emissions of 104g/km, it retains a small competitive advantage over fuel-efficient, gasoline-powered cars, and is becoming increasingly popular.

The hydrogen cars are more controversial. Even though the first prototypes were made as early as the 1960s and fuel cells can be highly efficient, they have not been able to establish themselves on the market. At the moment, fuel cells are expensive to produce and very fragile once on the street. So far, they have also not been able to survive adverse weather conditions, and starting up is almost impossible in winter. Lastly, at the moment, gasoline-powered cars have a better well-to-tank efficiency and a longer service life.

One of the few hydrogen cars presented in Geneva was the General Motors HydroGen4, the European version of the Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell, tested in the United States as part of a market test "project driveway" and in Europe as part of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) in Berlin.

But current limits on the technology question the industry’s seriousness, including the fact that hydrogen continues to be produced from fossil fuels, or possibly as a by-product of nuclear power – both inescapable realities for the foreseeable future. In addition, the process of producing hydrogen emits about the same amount of greenhouse gases as when actually driving a regular gasoline car.

Government interest has also been uneven. The European Commission tested the BMW Hydrogen7 last fall but refused any commitment to buy the car after the test period. With only one hydrogen gas station in Brussels, the vehicle does not seem to be that environmentally friendly after all.

"In the context of overall energy economy, a car like the BMW Hydrogen7 would probably produce far more carbon dioxide emissions than gasoline-powered cars available today," wrote David Talbot in Technology Review for 2007.

There were also sports cars running on alternative fuels: The French-German PGO Cévennes Turbo-CNG, a sporty convertible, runs on natural gas, an alternative that has become increasingly popular, and sales figures have more than doubled in Austria, bringing the number of natural gas car-owners to over 700. Despite its 150 horsepower 1.6-liter turbo charged engine, it only emits 118 g CO2/km. In comparison, the smallest gasoline-powered Alfa Romeo with a 1.6 twin spark engine emits 192.

The Swedish Koenigsegg CCXR, a thin, 1.11m futuristic sports car, lighter than a VW Golf, shaped like a black rocket with red accents, looks as if it could travel at sonic speed. It has a 4.8l V8 engine with a torque of 1080 that runs on E85 (85% Ethanol), E100 (100% Ethanol), or regular gasoline, and brings 1018 horsepower on the street. However, how environmentally friendly this "eco-version" of the regular edition CCX is, remains unclear.

But small cars are, without doubt, still the most environmentally friendly. They shone brightly in the car show’s limelight, and not just because most of them were white (a color in vogue lately). Special interest was shown round the inflatable Fiat Cinquecento the size of a one-family house.

The compact cars score high on every scale. They are not only a convenient option for townspeople looking for a parking spot, but most emit less than 100g CO2 per kilometer, the Smart for Two as little as 88g.

But is that all the industry’s specialists can achieve? What happened to electric cars with zero emissions?

EU-policy makers are as divided as the industry, the consumers, and the governments. While Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas drives a Toyota Prius Hybrid, and Commission Vice-President Siim Kallas prefers the "good old bicycle," Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, shows his commitment to reducing CO2 emissions by driving a four-wheel drive vehicle – definitely not fuel efficient – as he said he didn’t want to "mix his private life and public policy."

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