End of an Era for Hydrogen at the PNGV

by James S. Cannon, President, Energy Futures, Inc.

The Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles (PNGV), the much touted program to develop a “Car of the Future,” is entering a new and critical phase. After nearly four years of ramp-up, in 1997 the partners—six federal agencies and the Big Three auto makers—will pick the technologies and fuels they envision using in the PNGV car. The select few that make the cut in 1997 are likely to enjoy the most attention and money during the next phase of the PNGV program.

Launched with great fanfare at a 1993 White House ceremony, the PNGV aims to build a production prototype passenger sedan by 2004 capable of obtaining the equivalent of 80 miles per gallon, while showcasing advanced materials and propulsion technologies. Federal expenditures on the PNGV have totaled nearly $300 million each year, dwarfing the National Hydrogen Program budget. Moreover, federal costs have been matched by large contributions from the Big Three auto makers.

From day one, the PNGV drew attacks from some skeptics and critics who challenged both the goals and the structure of the program. Why, some argued, set a goal of 80 miles per gallon when many auto makers have already built concept cars achieving more than 100 miles per gallon? Others questioned a 10-year lead time to design only a prototype car, given the environmental and energy problems posed by continued use of conventional cars and fuels. Criticism reached a peak in July of 1996 when Daniel Sperling, Director of the California-based Institute of Transportation Studies, testified before a House Subcommittee and called the program “a poor investment.” Especially critical of the domination of the Big Three in the partnership, Dr. Sperling warned that one of the casualties of the PNGV structure, goals, and management could be hydrogen fuel cells, which might be passed over in favor of more conventional technologies and fuels.

In my view, the PNGV efforts to date have provided important benefits to the hydrogen community. The program, with its White House support, has helped to raise the visibility of the possible role of hydrogen in avoiding the pitfalls of continued dependence on conventional gasoline-powered automobiles. Feature articles about fuel cells in such widely circulated magazines as Business Week, Road & Track, and Popular Science might not have occurred without this exposure.

Early PNGV work also established a useful analytical framework within which to compare competing automotive technologies. The advantages of fuel cells have been clearly identified in this PNGV framework based on the interplay between vehicle weight, design, propulsion system, and fuel considerations.

Hydrogen project funding has not fared badly under the PNGV, either. According to Robert Chapman, Chairman of the PNGV Technical Committee, fuel cells have been capturing more than US$50 million a year. One positive result of all this work and money is that the major automotive manufacturers are gaining valuable experience and confidence in hydrogen-related technologies. Fuel cell projects now underway at each of the Big Three auto companies are tied to the PNGV initiative.

The PNGV has cast a flattering light on hydrogen, but future PNGV activities are not as promising. The front-running technology to win the 1997 popularity contest is not the fuel cell or any hydrogen technology, but rather a direct-injection diesel engine. Hydrogen’s star, therefore, is likely to fade and it is advisable for the hydrogen community to examine its priorities carefully.

Fortunately, the NHA’s Hydrogen Commercialization Plan has already set out a market entry strategy that focuses on other market entries besides the passenger car championed by the PNGV. The Plan calls for 100 hydrogen-powered buses to be in revenue service by 2005. The target market for hydrogen buses is 50 percent of new bus purchases by 2010, an ambitious but achievable goal for this promising hydrogen application.

Specialty vehicles, such as shuttles and neighborhood vehicles, are another attractive market entry for hydrogen now being pursued by companies operating outside of the PNGV. To pursue these and other new markets, the hydrogen community will have to adapt to new landscape at the PNGV and prepare to move forward without White House hoopla or the program’s big bucks.

©1997. All Rights Reserved. A Publication of the National Hydrogen Association.
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