FUEL CELLS may make economic sense someday for cars and minivans in the 3.0-liter category, says a top GM engineer, but they will not displace small engines.
Fritz Indra, engineering director of advanced engineering at GM's global powertrain development, says it is expensive to meet environmental concerns.
'To fulfill legal requirements, the cost of existing engine technology is going up,' says Indra. 'Direct-gasoline-injection makes an average engine DM500 ($275) more expensive. But in turn, this creates more chances for fuel cell technology, which is becoming more realistically priced.'
Fuel cell technology will first make sense for expensive cars, said Indra, 'even if their low production volumes won't contribute to reduction of fleet consumption.' Europe is leaning toward rules that would govern fuel consumption of the combined fleet of all new cars.
'But it is difficult to predict production cost levels now,' he says. 'And fuel cell technology won't make sense for engines of less than 1.5- to 1.8-liter capacity.'
Indra says GM has Opel Sintras with fuel cell technology on the road and that production should be able to begin in 2004.
Indra has worked for Opel since 1984, and last year he was appointed to GM's global powertrain development program.
He likes the challenge of coordinating global developments with Saab, Opel, GM-USA and Isuzu.
'It will make us understand problems earlier and speed up developments by exchanging knowledge,' Indra says, 'to be faster on the market with new products.'
Speed is relative.
'Engines are designed to serve 20 and sometimes 30 years,' says Indra. 'And all carmakers are still investing in new internal combustion engines.'
Thus, current investments in new engines may delay a change to fuel cell technology.
Indra believes future engines will be judged by their CO2 emissions. Because the energy content of diesel fuel is higher than petrol, the CO2 emission of each fuel has different meanings.
'Part of the consumption advantage of a diesel engine therefore would be reduced by 10 to 12 percent,' Indra says. 'Because of this, a good direct-injection gasoline engine will have chances to catch up with four-valve diesels.'