Rumination on transportation
Published May 10, 2004

It seems like hydrogen fuel cells are not necessarily the solution to our energy and pollution woes. I've come to this tentative conclusion after reading an in-depth treatment of the subject in Scientific American (in the May 2004 issue). If you just compare a fuel cell car to a standard, gasoline vehicle, there is no contest, either in efficiency or in emissions. The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle literally emits only water as a byproduct and is about twice as efficient as the internal combustion engine. But how did that fuel cell get into that car, and how did the hydrogen get into the fuel cell?

It turns out that separating hydrogen for use in fuel cells is very hard. Most conventional means use a lot of power, and the most common means that a hydrogen economy would use is the electrical grid. Fifty percent or more of the energy used in the U.S. comes from coal-burning power plants. Thus, we'd be trading gasoline burning cars with strict emissions guidelines and far higher efficiency for coal-fired power plants that would continue spilling carbon into the atmosphere. Hardly an attractive option.

In fact, recent studies have shown that hybrid vehicles like Toyota's Prius and Ford's new hybrid Escape SUV may be just as good for the environment, overall, as purely fuel cell vehicles. So why aren't we encouraging a product that is on the market right now, as opposed to the somewhat far-fetched notion of fuel cell vehicles all over the road? Technology for these hydrogen cars is not nearly to the point where they will be able to replace gasoline vehicles; it may be twenty years or more before they reach that stage. Why are we wasting our time?

It would be easy for me to speculate that this is just a ploy by the Bush administration to appear to be working towards a cleaner future while ignoring the opportunities for a cleaner today. In fact, I think this is the likely case. Luckily, consumer demand and a surprising level of vision--albeit driven by the bottom line--from auto manufacturers is leading a drive for hybrid vehicles now, despite the government's relative inaction. We should also be looking at other options.

It will never be economically feasible for the United States to have the sort of rail systems that criss-cross Europe and provide inexpensive, relatively efficient transportation between almost every city and town in the country. The infrastructure simply isn't in place, nor the demand for such services. American like their cars too much. That's fine by me--I like my car a lot, too. But there are niche opportunities for rail service that could and should be exploited.

Shanghai just unveiled the world's fastest commuter train service, running on a twenty-mile line between the downtown and the airport. The train takes just eight minutes to travel that distance, and reaches a top speed of 268 mph. It's possible it could go faster, if it didn't have to start slowing down again to stop at the airport. Imagine commuter rail service of this kind along the metro corridor from Boston to Washington D.C.: Boston to New York would take fifty minutes; New York to Philly in another thirty, and thirty more to D.C. Compare that to flying, with a half hour trip to the airport, a two hour check-in procedure and then a twenty minute flight and another half hour drive, and the system seems like a good idea. Rather than waste time and money on "high-speed" trains like Amtrak's Acela, which is ten years behind the cutting edge, why not invest in a train that would offer a real, time and money-effective alternative to air travel?

Commuting seems the best niche for such a rail system, but intercity routes over longer distances might also be economically feasible. It's less likely that anyone would trade a six hour flight across the country for a ten hour train ride (though I might--trains are much more comfortable!), but New York to Chicago or Detroit in just under four hours might be enticing, especially if the trains could run from center of city to center of city.

Of course, for someone who is deriding fuel cell technology as pie-in-the-sky dreaming, this is a pretty risky venture. The technology is proved, but very expensive, especially over long distances. Security is certainly another problematic issue; there's no way to take a train off course and crash it into a building, but the recent terrorist attacks in Madrid illustrate the difficulty of securing rail travel, which by its nature is more open and less secure than air travel. Germany is currently developing a high-speed line between its two premier cities, Berlin and Hamburg, and it will be interesting to see how this service succeeds--or fails.

If we are going to solve our present and future energy problems, we are going to have to start thinking more creatively. To focus on a single solution is to miss the big picture: there is no single solution--only a combination of our best technologies will lead to the bright, clean, efficient future we hope to build.