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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Go Hydrogen?: The Future of Automobiles

Air Date: Week of

In 1896, two engineers in Stuttgart, Germany invented the internal combustion car engine. Now, reporter Chris Brooks and producer Sandy Tolan return to Stuttgart to examine whether the world has made a cheap and dirty “deal with the devil", in obtaining this quick and easy transportation mode. The solution of hydrogen fueling is explored as a clean, though less glamorous, option for the future.


CURWOOD: The automobile is one of the miracles of the 20th century. It's given us unprecedented freedom and power over time and space. But of course this power has come at a tremendous cost: in deadly smog and climate changing greenhouse gas emissions. All this has led some to compare our deal with the automobile to Faust's deal with the Devil, but perhaps with a key difference. We can still turn back. In Germany, where poisonous yellow haze often chokes the Rhine Valley and the Autobahns, scientists and auto makers have been racing to save us from this Faustian predicament by designing a new kind of car: one that would run on pollution-free hydrogen. Producers Chris Brookes and Alan Weisman traveled to Germany, where the gasoline-powered car was invented, and to Los Angeles where car culture was invented, to bring us the story of Dr. Faust or Dr. Kleiber.

(A man calls a cat, which meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Some say it's a legend. Others say it really happened. Right here at Number 49 Hufesbaden Street in the village of Stauffen, Germany. The ancient building with the medieval inscription on the wall.

(The cat meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Perhaps there was a black cat on the step then, too, when it happened a long time ago, at midnight.

(A bell tolls)

BROOKES: It's old German.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, very old.

BROOKES: Can you give us even a rough translation?

GERMAN MAN: Here it said that in 1539, a doctor from Stauffen, from here, gave his soul, you see? [Reads in German] He gave his pure soul to the Devil, you could say.

BROOKES: This is a very famous story.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, yes.

BROOKES: This is an opera as well, yeah?

GERMAN MAN: Yes, sure. It's an opera, it's Faust. It's called Faust.

BROOKES: And it's about a man who sold his soul to the Devil in return for power.

GERMAN MAN: Yes. In return he gave, the Devil gave him power for a period of time. And after this period he'd have to return his soul to the Devil, because the Devil wants something in return for the power.

BROOKES: Thank you.

GERMAN MAN: Yeah, okay.

BROOKES: Good night.


(The cat meows and purrs)

BROOKES: Faust, who sold his soul to the Devil in return for power. It seemed like such a cheap deal, but the price turned out to be high when the debt came due. For the past century, you have to wonder: maybe we've sold our soul to a different devil. Fossil fuels, internal combustion engines, automobiles. That seemed like a cheap deal, too. But today, just like the story, the Devil has come for his due.

(The cat meows and purrs. A car starts up, motor purring. Music: "Every woman I know is crazy 'bout automobiles. Every woman I know, crazy 'bout automobiles. And yeah, I'm standing with nothing but rubber heels. Hey, hey!" Radio announcer: "KFI FM 640 more stimulating talk radio. Mike Nolan, KFI on the ground. Michael!" "Yeah, good morning, Bill. quickly again, still closed, Pacific Coast Highway northbound south between Chataqua. And also very heavy traffic as you work your way..." A phone rings. A woman answers. "Hi, I'm Camille, what city?" "Los Angeles. A listing for the Los Angeles Opera." Radio announcer: "Attention, Ford, Honda, Oldsmobile and Toyota owners, how would you like to get your next oil and filter changed at a full-service factory authorized..." Click or Clack [Bob or Ray Magliozzi]: "You're in love with this New Yorker, am I right about this?" Caller: "This is my first luxury car." Bob or Ray: "Go for it. This 2.5 motor will last forever." Radio traffic announcer: "...trying to make it to work on time. It's been a real struggle on the ... "

BROOKES: Los Angeles, the city that's crazy about the automobile. Freeways, freedom, sex appeal, American dream. Step on the gas, hit the road, feel that power. Gas goes in the tank, fumes come out the tailpipe. Who cares?

(Music up and under. Woman: "Good afternoon, L.A. Opera." "Hi, can you tell me what opera you're playing right now, please?" "Faust. There's a performance on the fourth, one on the seventh..." Newscaster amidst music from Faust: "...dousing a car fire in La Morata; we go live to KFI's Jay Lawrence." "Suzanne, the burning car was in the parking lot..."

BROOKES: In Los Angeles, the Faustian bargain we made for cheap power, for the modern miracle of the automobile, has come due. It's about all those emissions spewing out of 9 million tailpipes in the Los Angeles basin.

(Music from Faust up and under)

BROOKES: Mike Nolan flies traffic for LA radio station KFI. Every day, he strains to see those cars through the murk that pours out of them.

NOLAN: Well my working altitude as I fly above the traffic in the Southern California Basin is only about 2,000 feet. My visibility, looking straight down, is considerably restricted by the pollutants. It is not at all uncommon for a very clear Monday morning, at 6 o'clock, to become a very smoggy Monday morning by 8 o'clock in the morning. We can see that kind of a pattern where between 6 and 8 o'clock in the morning, just the number of cars on the road will actually increase the pollutant levels to a point where the mountains, for example, are partially obscured. And the visibility becomes extremely difficult. During those kinds of days I can literally look straight down to see the traffic and that's it.

BROOKES: And it's more than just a matter of visibility. According to one study, air pollution in Southern California causes 1,600 premature deaths and costs over $9 billion in health problems every year. But if you want to find the car that may save California, don't bother asking the Big Three. Ask the people who invented the car in the first place. No, it wasn't Henry Ford in Detroit; it was the Germans in Stuttgart.

(A performance in German. Drums and cymbals.)

BROOKES: This is the Novali Buhne Theatre in Stuttgart. And wouldn't you know it, they're performing Faust, too. It's the Hell scene, and you can hardly see the actors for the smog pouring from the smoke machine in the Devil's cauldron. The actor playing Faust leans against the side of the stage looking sick. He's probably thinking of his next line, but if LA traffic reporter Mike Nolan was playing this part and peering through the smog, he might just be thinking it's all the fault of 2 guys named Gustave Daimler and Karl Benz, who unveiled the world's first gasoline-powered automobile just across town in 1886.

(A car revs up)

BROOKES: Believe it or not, it still starts, that first car, at the Museum of the Stuttgart car manufacturer, Daimler-Benz. By the way, that's Benz as in Mercedes.

GERMAN MAN: Would you like to do the steering?

BROOKES: Sure. It's built like a horse carriage with a single cylinder engine and a handlebar instead of a steering wheel.

BROOKES: This is the first automobile.

GERMAN MAN: The first automobile.

BROOKES: This is it.

GERMAN MAN: By Karl Benz, yes?

BROOKES: In 1886 this was a transportation miracle. But nowadays at Daimler-Benz, they know the days of the gasoline-powered car are numbered. Dr. Helmut Buchner is a physicist working in the Daimler-Benz research division. He knows emissions standards are changing, both in the US and in Europe, and he's looking for solutions. One solution could be an electric car, but --

BUCHNER: But of course we have just the same opinion as any other US car manufacturer, saying an electric drive train is a battery on wheels, with quite a lot of problems. Of course an electric drive train you see that the conventional electrified train, and that's a fantastic engine with 80% efficiency. No problem. But to carry electricity with you, you still need tons of batteries to replace a 50-kilogram tank of gasoline.

(A streetcar bell rings amidst flute playing)

BROOKES: In other words, electric motors work just fine for German streetcars like this one. A sidewalk musician is here, can tootle at the tourists without fear of getting a face full of fumes whenever old Number 9 passes by.

(A streetcar motor)

BROOKES: But who wants a zero emission electric car that has to run on tracks, and overhead wires?

BUCHNER: And under these existing circumstances, to implement now a zero emission solution is not an easy task. Look at California, that's the problem. If such regulations are there to be met, okay. Then we can say either the car industry has to go electric, or they can eventually go hydrogen.

BROOKES: Go hydrogen? Well, if you drive down the Autobahn to Munich, you'll find that Mercedes Benz's competitor, the BMW company, has done just that.

(A car door closes)

GERMAN MAN: Let's start the engine.

(A key turns in the lock; a car revs up)

BROOKES: This is a normal BMW sedan with a normal 3.5 liter BMW internal combustion engine painted a normal BMW blue. What's not normal is what's in the fuel tank.

(A motor runs)

BROOKES: So this car is running entirely on hydrogen?

GERMAN MAN: With liquid hydrogen on the drums with gasoline. We can switch between gasoline and hydrogen with this switch you can see here.

BROOKES: That little pushbutton on the dashboard allows you to choose your fuel. Fill up with gasoline and it's like any other car. Pumping fumes out the tailpipe, pollution into the atmosphere, bad news. Fill up with liquid hydrogen, though, and it's a very different story.

GERMAN MAN: I think we stop here because it's, I think it's relatively quiet. Okay.

(Car door opens)

BROOKES: Okay. And where you see that different story is when you get out of the car and take a look at the tailpipe.

(Car door closes)

GERMAN MAN: We have no emissions because hydrogen reacts with the oxygen of the air only to water.

BROOKES: So I can put my face down in front of this and breathe in and I won't cough?

GERMAN MAN: Yes. It's impossible to get toxic nitrogens. You can see my glasses, you see the vapor. And it condenses on the surface of my glasses.

BROOKES: Yeah, and you have them about 2 inches away from the tailpipe. And all I can smell is steam.

GERMAN MAN: Yes, it's like when you are cooking water, that's the same smell. You can compare it, yes.

BROOKES: Like breathing in front of a kettle.

GERMAN MAN: (Laughs) Yes.

BROOKES: Like sticking your nose over a kettle. Run this car on hydrogen and virtually the only emission is water vapor. So this is great. We got the car, it runs on hydrogen. Let's all dash down to our local BMW dealer and buy it and save the world, global warming, and California. No problem, right? Not quite. These 2 BMW engineers say bringing this car to market is a little more complicated than that. Klaus Pehr and Rudolf Probst.

PEHR: Bringing to the market means selling it and there are some disadvantages compared to the usual car, and one very important problem is the problem of infrastructure. We can't sell the car if there's no refueling station.

PROBST: It's the question of chicken and the egg.

BROOKES: The chicken or the egg. Who's going to buy a hydrogen powered car when there's no hydrogen filling stations to gas up in? And who's going to build hydrogen filling stations when there's no hydrogen cars on the road? And supposing you do build a hydrogen filling station on every corner: where does the hydrogen come from in the first place? Most industrial production uses methane. But that produces greenhouse gases, and methane is a fossil fuel that will run out some day, too, just like gasoline. Can we get hydrogen from a renewable source? Here in Germany, they're working on that, too. But to see it, we have to drive all the way back to Stuttgart.

(A car motor revs up. Music plays, water bubbles.)

BROOKES: Okay. We got to this lab here in Stuttgart and I'll cut to the chase. This gadget here. No, it's not Lawrence Welk's bubble machine and it's not going to play polka music. It's called an electrolyzer, and it looks like an oil drum, only plastic. The wires on the end here hook up to electricity from a bank of solar cells outside. This electricity from the sun is splitting the water into oxygen and hydrogen, making these bubbles which are collected and stored in big tanks outside. Clean hydrogen from a renewable source. You could pump these bubbles into that BMW internal combustion engine. But there's still a very tiny amount of trace emissions from that engine. So there's even a better way. Reverse this process. Pump hydrogen and oxygen into this plastic barrel. That'll be called a fuel cell and it will generate electricity. And could such a fuel cell power a high efficiency electric motor in an automobile? Step right this way, ladies and gentlemen.

(A car runs very fast)

BROOKES: This is the Mercedes Benz test track in Stuttgart, the auto maker's own private speedway with a lot of lean, mean, sleek looking test cars ripping around the fast turns and straightaways. Oodles of high speed automotive sex appeal. Except for one bashful, slightly pudgy engineer in a lab coat standing proud beside what looks like an ordinary Mercedes delivery van. It runs on a hydrogen fuel cell.

(Beeping sounds)

KLEIBER: My name is Tomas Kleiber, and you're in the research department of Daimler-Benz responsible for this project.

BROOKES: What was that beep?

KLEIBER: First, sensors for hydrogen, have to warm up, and in this time we can hear the beep. Now I can start the engine. Turning the key. Now the system is started; you hear the compressor of the engine. The compressor, which is delivering air to the fuel cell.

(A compressor motor)

BROOKES: I don't hear the fuel cell itself; that makes no noise.

KLEIBER: No noise in the fuel cell; the noise is coming from the air compressor. I'm starting the electric engine; have to close switches. Put in gear and we can start.

BROOKES: There's no internal combustion engine under the hood of this van. Instead, there's an electric motor. In the back, a big tank of hydrogen gas connected to a box not much bigger than a couple of cases of beer with wires sticking out. That's the fuel cell.

(A motor revs up)

KLEIBER: Now I'm accelerating.

BROOKES: This thing doesn't exactly lay rubber. Yeah, so what do you want? It's a van. In the driver's seat, mild mannered Dr. Kleiber works a normal clutch, gear shift, gas pedal -- I mean hydrogen pedal. The hydrogen pumps out of the tank into the fuel cell. Air pumps in as well, and inside the cell the hydrogen and oxygen combine to produce steam and electricity. Keep feeding it hydrogen, the fuel cell keeps generating DC electric current, kind of like a refillable battery, that powers the electric motor that drives us down this Mercedes test track.

KLEIBER: I'm driving 50 kilometers per hour.

BROOKES: About 35 miles an hour. Everything else on the track is leaving us in their dust. A lot of the cars that are passing us here on the test track are very fast, very powerful, very sleek looking cars. Very glamorous cars with some sex appeal. (Kleiber laughs) Do you feel that you're driving a vehicle that doesn't have any of that? Or does it have a different kind of sex appeal for you?

KLEIBER: I have an automotive powered car, and I think it's more than a normal car with an internal combustion engine [can't get exact phrase].

BROOKES: This is glamorous to you.

KLEIBER: It's more important for me. It's a good feeling.


BROOKES: It is a good feeling. Driving around a test track in a completely zero emission electric vehicle running on a hydrogen powered fuel cell. This could be the car of the future.

(Music up and under: "Turn up and flip on the sand, and then you start rolling just as fast as you can! Crazy 'bout an automobile...)

BROOKES: Of course it's heavy. The whole cargo space is taken up with that hydrogen gas tank. And Dr. Kleiber thinks realistically it will be at least 10 years before everything is made small and light enough to go on the market.

(Music up and under)

BROOKES: That leaves one other teensy little problem. You notice, he said, driving this dumpy little state of the art van is a good feeling. Not a glamorous feeling, a good feeling. And that's the problem. They don't write songs like this because a car is a good feeling. And by and large, car makers don't sell us cars because they're good for us or good for the environment. Like they say on Madison Avenue, it's not the steak that sells, it's the sizzle.

PLECKING: I collect red, one size, one 18 cars.

BROOKES: Here's a guy whose business is sizzle. He's got a collection of 29 miniature red race cars lined up on his desk. He's got a tan, he's got all his hair, and he's got a very expensive, very sleek and very powerful sportscar that he's planning to drive through the Italian Alps tomorrow. He's Johan Plecking, Vice President of Marketing for Mercedes Benz.

PLECKING: The sizzle we need because people buy cars more emotional than rational. To their friends they argue normally, very rational, but deep in their heart they bought the car emotional. And therefore you have to have and to create emotion around the car. In the United States we have very good agencies, and I have an ad here for them.

BROOKES: He pulls out a full color Mercedes magazine ad. It doesn't look like dumpy Dr. Kleiber and his pokey little fuel cell van.

BROOKES:Let's see -- a red convertible.

PLECKING: This is a red convertible, yes, this picture. You see a desert through the front. There is a red car coming, driving to the camera. A man or a woman is sitting in the car, and the car is open; it's a convertible, SL Convertible. It's early morning, there is a little bit of dust in the air. And it's a great feeling of freedom. It's a wonderful emotional shot. The sun is rising.

BROOKES: This is the dream of the car in America.


BROOKES: In the future, when we all have to conform to necessity, accept limits, you're going to have to be saying well, you can't drive very fast, you can't go very far, the car will be quite small. Perhaps it won't be as attractive, but you really should buy it because it's better for you. Is that a sizzle you can sell, that society will buy right now?

PLECKING: I don't think so. I think we have new desires in the future. And, but it is different, it is not a car to drive fast. It's not a car to dream the dream of the blonde girl and the open SL; it's another dream. But dreams are there and we will fulfill dreams. But this is a hard task to do. You are right. It's not easy.

BROOKES: It's not easy. Changing over to clean emission-free hydrogen-powered cars may mean more than sorting out a few technical details, as Dr. Kleiber believes. More than having enough hydrogen filling stations, as the BMW folks believe. It may just mean you and me and all of us becoming less interested in consuming and more interested in conserving. Dreaming a different dream.

(Music from Faust up and under)

BROOKES: In the theater in Stuttgart, the chorus is chanting another warning to Faust, and we know how the story goes. He's so in love with cheap and easy power, he'll ignore the warnings. Of course this is just a myth, just a play. But if Faust were alive in our modern world and had to make his choice today, I figure I know where he'd be. He wouldn't be sitting in Dr. Kleiber's hydrogen fuel cell van; he'd be in that red Mercedes SL Convertible, driving across the desert with the top down and his foot to the floor. Heading for Los Angeles.

(A car races down a road)

BROOKES: He'd be doomed, of course. Too bad.

(The car continues. Nolan: "... work on time, it's been a real struggle on the drive northbound 5 out of Orange County up into the interchange, we have that circular southbound freeway Euclid off of the interchange; that's been affected... Eastbound 118 on the southbound now going circular, it's a difficult highway so far... )

CURWOOD: Dr. Faust or Dr. Kleiber was written and produced by Chris Brookes and Alan Weisman, with Living on Earth's Sandy Tolan and Homelands Productions.



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