Ford joins the Fuel Cell race

With an eye to the future, most of the major carmakers are looking at hydrogen power as one of the alternatives to the petrol/diesel reliance on dwindling oil stocks (despite our ‘liberation’ of Iraq, oilman George Dubbya and the WMD’s - Words of Mass Deception).

FoMoCo has decided to put its experimental fuel cell vehicles into Vancouver with five hydrogen-powered Ford Focuses to be used by fleet operators in that city for the next three years. The lucky recipients have not been chosen yet for this project which a Ford spokesman says will cost about USD 3.5 million, according to the report in Automotive News this week.

The choice of Vancouver is not a random one, as the fuel cells used by Ford are made by Ballard Power Systems Inc. in Vancouver. Incidentally, Ford owns 19.1 percent of Ballard. (Incest and nepotism in the car game’s nothing new, as we know.)

According to Ford, the goals are to test the evolving technology, educate the public about fuel cells and find out how drivers and fleet operators react to fuel cell power and hydrogen refuelling. Other organizers involved are Natural Resources Canada, a government agency, and Fuel Cells Canada, an industry association.

Fuel cells combine hydrogen from a fuel source with oxygen from the air to produce electricity, with only water vapour as a by-product. The clean concept is then that if hydrogen can be obtained without creating pollution, hydrogen fuel cell motor cars will make the auto industry environmentally clean too. Something that many would herald as a welcome change.

Currently there are hydrogen fuel cell cars in Japan on test, plus others in America, including DaimlerChrysler which has vehicles being used by parcel delivery company UPS, General Motors has 6 cars in Washington, Honda has vehicles being used in Los Angeles and Toyota has hydrogen powered SUVs at two University of California campuses.

Unless something really pops up in the next five years, you can expect hydrogen fuel cells to be the way we will go by 2010. I believe that the hybrid gasoline/electric vehicles will be an interim solution, not the end point in new engine technology.

Autotrivia Quiz

Last week I mentioned that the leaping cat is the bonnet mascot associated with the Jaguar marque, but another make used the leaping cat mascot in 1954. Clue - it was American. What was this car? It was the 1954 Buick Wildcat II.

1954 Buick Wildcat II

So to stop the webcrawlers, here is another car to identify. This photograph was taken at an international motor show in the 1930’s. That’s enough clues. What car is this?

For the Automania FREE beer this week, be the first correct answer to email [email protected]

Good luck!

Asian Touring Car Series underway again

The ‘international’ sedan car series in SE Asia is the Asian Touring Car Series (ATCS), which kicked off the 2003 season at Malaysia’s Sepang International Circuit on June 7 and 8 as part of the Asian Festival of Speed (AFOS). The FIA-sanctioned series has a new tyre supplier this year - BF Goodrich Tires.

Matthew Marsh Ford Focus (photo courtesy of InSports Images)

As would be imagined, Japanese manufacturers dominate the entries, with Honda Integras and Civics making up the majority of the grid. However, the high percentage of Japanese cars may not necessarily equate to guaranteed dominance of the series this season. Professional touring car outfit GR Asia has entered two of the Ford Focus ST170 machines which made their debut at the Macau Grand Prix Guia Race last year when Briton Simon Harrison won both legs of the ATCS and took fifth overall.

GR Asia team boss Tim Huxley said, “We are delighted to be taking part in Asia’s premier racing series, and as the only European cars entered, look forward to providing both variety and stiff competition to the traditional Japanese manufacturers.”

The cars are engineered by UK’s Paul Ridgway, who designed and built the Focus Super Production car and has been behind numerous race wins in the UK, Europe and Asia. Ridgway is combining the ATCS campaign with a hectic racing schedule in the UK.

GR Asia has two new drivers for the 2003 season, both of whom are well known on the Asian racing scene. New Zealander Nick Thomas has been an enthusiastic supporter of AFOS, competing in the AF2000 single seater series. Briton Matthew Marsh has enjoyed success both in Europe and the Asia Pacific Region, including a 5th place and class win at the Bathurst 24 hour race in Australia last year. Most recently, Marsh finished in 4th place in the opening round of the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia in March in his very first outing behind the wheel of a Porsche 911 GT3 Cup car.

The perils of vehicle production in strange lands

In recent years there has been a veritable stampede of western manufacturers ‘defecting’ to the East as China began opening its doors to foreign investment. While there were those in the auto industry that were running in headlong, there were auto-watchers muttering about the lemming principle. They may have been right, if China’s draft auto industry policy is ratified by their lawmakers.

The new draft auto-industry policy requires that Chinese companies be technology-independent and account for 50% of the total market by 2010. The limits of foreign ownership of joint ventures is to be 50% only, and parts makers are to export 40% of local production.

The realities of the draft, which began circulating among industry executives late last month, are that 50% of all vehicle sales in China must come from domestic companies that own 100% of the vehicle’s technology, by 2010. If enacted, the provision could force foreign manufacturers to turn their technology and patents over to their local (Chinese) partners as a condition for remaining in business. Now that is something that would have the western world custodians of intellectual property looking very worried.

China has long made it clear that technology transfer is one reason for allowing foreign joint ventures to occur in the first place. Companies that already have automotive joint ventures in China, such as General Motors and Volkswagen AG, have built plants that tapped into their worldwide technological expertise, but sharing the technology and giving it away are two different entities.

Now if you think that the draft really only affects the big boys, think again. Another provision of the draft policy specifies that any foreign company taking a 10% stake or larger in a Chinese company must share R&D and production and sales know-how with the Chinese partner.

Contrary to the Thailand experience, the new draft also says that any automotive venture must be at least 50% owned by a local partner, effectively ruling out the possibility of a wholly owned foreign auto manufacturing venture in China.

In a masterful piece of understatement, an un-named foreign auto executive said, “It doesn’t allow foreign automakers to have much of a role.” Not quite true, it allows the role for the foreign manufacturers to be that of the “givers” while China says, “Thank you velly much!”

In the lead up to China joining the WTO, they managed to obtain an exemption from rules that ban such limits on foreign investment. However, automakers had hoped that China eventually would relent and allow foreign companies to have complete ownership and control over their Chinese operations, as can occur in other countries.

Many have warned that getting into bed with China might be exciting initially, but she may not make a very good wife in the long run. These draft regulations would make that look very prophetic.

BF Goodrich - a strong heritage

BF Goodrich Tires has enjoyed a long history of technical innovations and racing firsts. They invented the tubeless tyre, and were the first to introduce carbon black to improve tyre strength and durability.

Targeted at the younger generation motoring enthusiast, the brand has continued to reinforce its heritage in motorsports through consistent wins at such prestigious races as Paris-Dakar and the Baja. BF Goodrich Tires also clinched a victory in its first foray into the Japan Grand Touring Car Championships in 2002, and is the official tyre sponsor of the Asian Touring Car Series.