It's like a science fair at speed, as if you had cleared all those pasty-faced geeks out of the research-and-development laboratory and made them run on foot around a race track. There's hardly a sound, just the faint rustle of pocket protectors and the slap of running shoes on pavement, and then the sight of white lab coats fluttering weakly in the breeze.
This is Challenge Bibendum, the Indy 500 of clean air vehicles, a competition between every kind of green vehicle on our blue planet. There are more than a hundred vehicles in all, from city busses to pod-size people-movers, and lots of them are whistling around the 2.0-mile Infineon Raceway here at Sears Point at the breakneck pace of 45 mph. In the NASCAR garage area, you'll find a clean-air carnival, dozens and dozens of information booths from every little company hoping to cash in on the technology revolution that's underway in clean-air transportation. Some five-hundred journalists swirl through it all, speaking languages from the far corners of the world, including Chinese, English, French, German, and Italian. It's a clean-air extravaganza.
Five years ago, Michelin underwrote a modest rally of clean-air vehicles in France, and they were driven to the Champs Elysees in Paris from the tire group's headquarters in Clermont-Ferrand. Intended to be the first organized display of clean-air vehicles in real-world conditions, Challenge Bibendum caught the imagination of car manufacturers, media outlets, and government leaders. It also caught the imagination of Edouard Michelin, the tire company's 40-year-old CEO. He personally championed the event, and Challenge Bibendum unexpectedly took on a life of its own. The 2003 edition, held the last week of September, was designed to showcase clean-air technology for legislators and bureaucrats in nearby Sacramento, the capitol of California.
As with previous Challenge Bibendums, this event was partly a teach-in and partly a race. There were important presentations by leading experts in transportation, almost none of whom would otherwise be capable of commanding anyone's attention for longer than three minutes. There was a design competition--a beauty contest, really, in which there was an award for Style Advancement (the swimsuit portion) and Technical Integration (playing "America the Beautiful" on the accordian). There was an award for Frontal Crash Impact Safety, a recognition that clean-air vehicles can get smacked up in everyday use, and it would be useful if a phone call to an ambulance and a hazardous materials clean-up squad wasn't necessary every time it happened. Air emissions were also evaluated, and it involved hooking up a variety of complicated, multi-part sniffers to exhaust pipes in a way that reminded many media observers of a particularly uncomfortable visit to the doctor's office.
Best of all, there was a performance drive of all the vehicles. It has finally occurred to the advocates of clean-air transportation that competitive performance is the only way to prove that green vehicles are ready for the garage of anyone who is not Ed Begley, Jr., the well-meaning but off-the-beam actor who has long been an enthusiast of electric vehicles. Of course, the performance test was nominally an evaluation of fuel economy, requiring the competing vehicles to negotiate 100 miles of the road circuit at Sears Point at an average speed of 45 mph. But it looked more like a special test of the World Rally Championship, as assorted hired guns from auto racing tried to maintain an average speed of exactly 45 mph in the shortest time possible while their navigators called out the lap times to the nearest tenth of a second. We saw SCCA racer Bryon Farnsworth in a PZEV-certified Volvo S60 from Volvo North America and Jim Russell Racing School-instructor Mark Wolocatiuk in an LPG-fueled Ford Crown Victoria from SA Motorsports. NASCAR shoe Bobby Hamilton was racing Dodge's diesel-powered pickup truck so hard that he was blackflagged by race control.
At the end of the three-day event there were plenty of winners in a bewildering number of categories, much like a kid's soccer tournament where everyone is expected to go home with a positive self-image. You can read all about it at www.challengebibendum.com. All the vehicles were assembled for a souvenir picture with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background as Bibendum, the Michelin Man himself, waved gaily. We have the following observations to report:
Challenge Bibendum has become an important event simply because it rounds up every important clean-air vehicle and provides a worthwhile glimpse of relative real-world performance. For example, there were fourteen fuel cell vehicles, the most ever gathered in one place. Challenge Bibendum also shows us that the green vehicle sub-culture has finally reached critical mass. There are recognizable spokesmen, interesting vehicles, lots of enthusiasts, fun events, a big race, and even a magazine, The Green Car Journal.
For all this, the circumstances that inspire ever-cleaner, ever-more-fuel-efficient vehicles are certainly no joke. Even a sixty percent increase in CAFE fuel-economy standards would not close the gap appreciably between this country's consumption of oil and its domestic production. American demand for petroleum-powered personal transportation will double by 2020, and by then we'll face dramatically increased competition for fuel from rapidly increasing vehicle fleets in places like China and India. It's no wonder the science guys are so serious about the issues of efficiency improvement, pollution reduction, and new fuel production so seriously.
It is possible to make fuel from some pretty disgusting stuff, as the promoters of bio-diesel proved with vehicles powered by sewage, sludge, and even household kitchen grease. But there's something about it that makes you feel like you're driving inside a newsreel taken of life in Russia during the 1930s.
It seems as if every European vehicle manufacturer is eager to tell you all about the wonders of diesel power, as any number of fast, fun-to-drive turbocharged diesel cars at Challenge Bibendum illustrated. Clearly, Europe's carbon-dioxide emissions have been reduced overall thanks to the revolution in diesel power that has taken place over the last decade. But then you notice that the very same manufacturers that promote diesel with the too-bright gleam of true believers are the very same that lack any sort of hybrid technology. Diesel and hybrid power are simply two halves of the clean-air question. Moreover, the diesel advocates fail to understand that diesel-powered cars have proven themselves to be fast and practical long ago. The questions that remain have little to do with technology. First, diesel particulates have been identified as a health hazard, and soot filters with high-mileage effectiveness are becoming available only just now. Moreover, these new filters work only with low-sulfur fuel, which won't be widely available in the U.S. until 2006. Second, the typical diesel fueling experience is messy and nasty, and no one likes to feel as if they're in the middle of a Nebraska truck stop while they are pumping fuel into the car. Social issues-not technical issues-are the things holding back widespread diesel use in the U.S.
The age of hybrid vehicles is already upon us. The Toyota Prius was recognized with a design award, and we were told that you can drive this hybrid some 8500 miles and produce about the same air emissions as four ounces of nail-polish remover. While Toyota has announced a long-term commitment to hybrid vehicles that will begin with volume production of a Lexus RX330 hybrid next year, Ford's Escape hybrid and Chevrolet's Silverado hybrid weren't even on display, though they are supposed to enter production shortly. General Motors had an elaborate display of future technology, and its engineers sniffed dismissively at the Prius while they tinkered with an Opel hybrid, but the Japanese are ready to start full-scale production while the Detroit engineers are still trying to get their act together. GM itself has announced that clean-air cars are its best hope to regain market share in California, but so far there's no product to back up the public relations initiative.
The General Motors Hy-Wire fuel-cell vehicle was available for short drives by the media, and it revealed itself to be both impractical and silly. The Hy-Wire has a flat, platform-like floor that incorporates the fuel cell and electric powertrain, and then a body is fastened on top of it, which permits different bodystyles to be easily adapted. The idea came from design school students, and the concept predictably works far better in a one-sixty-fourth-scale Hot Wheels toy car than in a full-size sedan. The Hy-Wire's bulky power platform makes the step-in height equivalent to that of a four-wheel-drive pickup. The seats are perched directly on the floor so the outside of the vehicle will look low and sleek, but legroom is compromised severely as a result. Moreover, the fuel cell technology is far from robust, and a platoon of engineers with laptop computers was required to keep it running, as if the Hy-Wire were some kind of Formula 1 car. The Hy-Wire's false futurism is summed up by its steering yoke, which integrates steering and throttle control in a way that produced frightening cognitive dissonance in everyone who tried it. For all its zippy styling, the Hy-Wire is really about new kind of manufacturing strategy. Like so many design school exercises, the Hy-Wire discards decades of good design in order to produce little more than fresh styling.
The science guys with their green vehicles are always turning to you and saying, "See, it runs just like a real car." This might be a fine thing to say at a science fair, when every participant is happy that his experiment hasn't left a pile of scorched rubble on the ground, but it's not particularly impressive in the world of vehicles where we already have things that run like real cars. They're called, "real cars." The gasoline-fueled internal combustion engine has come so far that it can be tuned into a PZERO-certified vehicle-a government-certified zero-emissions vehicle. In short, the internal combustion engine is so clean and so fuel-efficient that few of the new clean-air technologies can presently rival it. There's lots of reasons to fret about the clean-air future, but most of them lie in the habits of people, not the technology of the automobile.
For more information, visit www.challengebibendum.com.