Let’s Explore Hydrogen-Powered Cars

Credit: Aston Martin

Credit: Aston Martin

Hydrogen powered motor vehicles might best be described as a technology that started to emerge, stopped, went through several changes, and now has started to emerge once again. According to even rather old statements by researchers present at the Emerging Technologies Conference symposium at MIT, hydrogen cars are now a real possibility as a result of changes in design ethics.

Previous attempts at hydrogen engines relied primarily on mechanical gadgets. Initially this may have seemed logical. Modern automobiles are mostly mechanical, though they do have electronic and digital components. Nevertheless, most transmissions aren’t electrical — and therein lies a prime opportunity for disruption. While some electrical transmissions have been used in hybrid vehicles, electric cars and diesel-electric locomotives, most automobile engineers continue to rely on traditional mechanical transmissions.

Despite the rather slow progress in this industry, hydrogen engine designs have increasingly been built around electronics in recent years. One engineer referred to pre-production mockups as “resembling an electronic skateboard with a passenger compartment that looks like something out of a comic book”.

One of the earlier working hydrogen auto prototypes was called the Hy-Wire, introduced early in 2002 by General Motors. It has no internal combustion engine. It doesn’t have a transmission or drive train either. The driver of the Hy-Wire sits in front of a large window. The controls are every bit as radical as the design. When the driver wants to accelerate, they simply twist a joystick. If they want to brake, they squeeze the joystick instead of pressing a pedal. The control stand can be shifted between the left and right sides of the Hy-Wire. This could help it to adapt to roads in the United States as well as those in countries like the United Kingdom and Japan. It would also be beneficial if post offices were ever confident enough to use something so futuristic looking, since they have the steering wheel on the opposite side of the truck.

Obviously the GM Hy-Wire is rather old by today’s standards. The earliest mockups were built over a decade ago, but engineers still love to use it as an example of what the next generation of hydrogen cars might look like. In this day of wearable computers and HUD technology, this might not be that impressive to the mainstream media. But there are some very recent developments that might surprise those who scoff at the fact that people have been experimenting with this stuff since 2002.

The joystick interface mentioned above is starting to re-emerge according to a study of new drive-by-wire systems that combine the steering wheel, throttle and brakes. Fans of IndyCar racing have probably already noticed the trend of combining the steering wheel with other controls as well. New power management schemes are being designed so that drivers can easily recharge their fuel cells right from home. Legislative challenges are also starting to prime the economic climate as well.

Despite the fact that this particular emerging technology has taken a few years to gain traction, the future looks bright when it comes to zero-emission vehicles. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Would you drive a hydrogen-powered car if they were more readily available on the market today?

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