With petroleum nudging record prices, and amidst growing signs of an environmental meltdown from global warming, motorists around the world are becoming increasingly interested in alternative fuels and advanced powertrains.
But is there a "green" alternative for the future? Is there a way to maintain individual mobility, especially with millions of new drivers queuing up in places likeChina and India?
The solution -- or solutions -- may be among the dozens of alternatives displayed at the eighth annual Challenge Bibendum held in Paris over the weekend. The event, sponsored by the French tiremaker, Michelin, aimed to address the toughest challenges facing the car and truck industry:
· The need to come up with cleaner, more fuel-efficient vehicles, preferably running on alternative and renewable fuels
· The need to reduce the devastating carnage on highways around the world, where hundreds of thousands die in car-related accidents annually
· And the need to keep highways moving, especially in the world's traffic-choked cities
The products and concepts on display at the Challenge ranged from new hybrid-electric vehicles to futuristic fuel cell vehicles. Participants included both major auto manufacturers, including General Motors, PSA, and Nissan, as well as individual inventors, such as Jean Kesseler, who took attendees for a ride in his tiny, 1200-pound, CNG-powered sports car.
Those who came to Paris expecting to find a breakthrough resolving environmental, safety, and congestion problems were certain to be disappointed, however, for the general consensus was that there's likely to be no "silver bullet."
"There's no single solution. On the contrary, there's a vast array of solutions," declared Michel Rollier, Michelin's chief executive officer, at the event's opening session.
The current situation for transportation planners, noted several observers, resembles circumstances a century ago, when the industry was faced with several promising alternatives, notably steam, electric, diesel and gasoline-powered vehicles. Soon after Henry Ford introduced his moving assembly line, and with the discovery of abundant oil under the sun-parched fields of Texas, the gasoline-powered internal-combustion engine took center stage.
Many believe that an eventual shakeout will favor the fuel-cell vehicle, or FCV. And a number of these hydrogen-powered vehicles rolled up to the Eiffel Tower for Sunday's public display, including the latest prototype from Nissan.
"It's becoming very close to (the capabilities of) a current gasoline vehicle," boasted Tarou Hagiwara, head of the Japanese automaker's fuel cell program.
Some key concerns for customers have been resolved; new storage tanks, compressed to 10,000 psi, provide Nissan's FCV with up to a 325-mile range between fill-ups. Performance is roughly equal to a vehicle with a 2.5-liter gasoline engine. And the latest fuel cell stack is nearly as durable as that conventional powertrain. But costs are still far beyond what the market would bear -- even if Nissan knew how to mass produce the technology.
So while the automaker already has seven of its FCVs in the field for real-world testing, including two provided to private customers, Hagiwara cautioned that he doesn't expect Nissan - or its competitors -- to be able to build a truly market-ready fuel-cell vehicle for at least another decade.
DaimlerChrysler's own production target is "the middle of the next decade, around 2015," echoed the Juergen Friedrich, head of the German-American automaker's own fuel-cell program.
With plenty of work left on fuel cells, there's growing interest in higher-mileage systems and alternative fuels that can at least curb growing global demand for oil.
Jean Kesseler's solution is the K1200, a largely fiberglass two-seater that looked uncannily like Britain 's classic Bug-eyed Spring sports car. The CNG-fueled prototype is a one-off that the inventor hopes will be picked up by a major auto manufacturer.
There were other, even more oddball concept vehicles, some looking like they were designed for the retro-futuristic cartoon show, the Jetsons, such as the Correges Z2000P. Many depended on battery power, including a number of prototypes brought from China .
The Asian nation, which is undergoing a massive transportation growth spurt, is desperately looking for ways to limit pollution and curb traffic snarls. It has begun encouraging its small, home-grown auto manufacturers - of which there are still hundreds -- to focus on battery power. That includes electric-powered scooters, several of which zipped around the CERAM racetrack, over the weekend.
Volvo's offering to the 2006 Challenge Bibendum suggested there are ways to cope with near-term uncertainties. "One renewable fuel cannot replace all fossil fuels of today," explained senior vice president Hans Folkesson, so the Multi-Fuel Vehicle is designed to run on at least five different fuels, ranging from liquids like gasoline to gases like CNG.
Based on a conventional Volvo station wagon, the MFV features a turbocharged, 2.0-liter five-cylinder engine that can produce as much as 200 horsepower, depending on the fuel in use at any given moment, and launch from 0-100 km/h (0-62.5 mph) in 8.7 seconds.
Folkesson defied some of the most radical attendees at the Challenge Bibendum by cautioning "We shouldn't stop developing the petrol engine," which still has numerous opportunities to improve its performance, lower emissions, and improve fuel economy.
Toyota , Honda, and General Motors intended to show how with their latest hybrid technologies. These hybrid-electric vehicles have gained tremendous attention in recent months, as fuel prices have soared. GM is a late entry into the hybrid game, and brought to Paris its first true hybrid, a version of its popular crossover/SUV. The Vue Green Line is expected to deliver as much as 30 miles per gallon in urban driving, and GM officials noted that with an option price of $2000, it will be the most inexpensive hybrid package on the market.
One could measure the merits of the offerings at the Challenge by the length of the lines, as journalists and participants alike vied to drive around the CERAM course. It was nearly impossible to snag a ride in Mercedes' Bionic Car.
With a fish-like body mounted on the platform of a subcompact A-Class, the prototype was introduced at the Frankfurt Motor Show last September. Its odd, but aerodynamic shape was designed to showcase the German marque's new BlueTec diesel system, which slashes emissions of smog-causing oxides of nitrogen and potentially carcinogenic particulates.
Nearly as popular where two far more conventional-looking cars from PSA, one bearing a Citroen badge, the other a Peugeot. Both shared the French maker's new diesel-hybrid system. A number of manufacturers have been working to pair up the two high-mileage technologies, but have stumbled over a variety of obstacles.
The 110-horsepower system showcased by Peugeot appeared to be quite roadworthy, though the technology is still "three times too expensive," acknowledged spokesman Jean Francois Heure. But he added that PSA believes it will be able to mark a cost-competitive version by 2010.
While there were some attendees who tried to bring mass transit into the discussion, it was clear that the focus of the Challenge Bibendum was personal mobility.
"If we were to curb the automobile, we'd be curbing freedom and economic growth," asserted Michelin's Rollier.
The new CEO was thrust into the unexpected position of overseeing the eclectic -- and costly -- conference following the as-yet-unexplained boating accident that took the life of his predecessor, Edouard Michelin, late last month. The Challenge was a personal crusade created by the family heir to the century-old French company.
In the days after his death, company officials frantically sent out word that the Challenge would go on as a tribute to the visionary Edouard Michelin. But the question that everyone was asking as they began gathering in Paris was what Rollier might do next. He didn't waste time delivering an answer.
"I, along with all the managers of Michelin, am committed to continuing this," he said, wrapping up the first day of the event. While there may be few breakthroughs on the horizon, there is still plenty of progress being made, and the Challenge Bibendum will remain a showcase for tomorrow's enviro-friendly technology.