Mention fuel cells to people in the automotive industry and you get an illuminating range of reactions.
True believers rhapsodize over a future free of imported oil and nasty tailpipe emissions. Cynics scoff that ``hydrogen economy'' talk is just a tactic to forestall higher fuel economy standards.
Other folks' eyes glaze over at the mere mention of compressed hydrogen storage or polymer electrolyte membranes.
After a recent dive into the world of fuel cell development, I've come away with a different take. Fuel cells may or may not represent the automotive powertrain of the future, but the pressure to move away from the petroleum-fueled internal combustion engine will only increase.
If the industry's global growth projections prove true, the world will add the equivalent of today's entire U.S. vehicle fleet in the next few decades. That is likely to change the cost-benefit calculations for alternate powertrains profoundly. Expect political pressure to intensify, too.
1.1 billion vehicles
There are an estimated 835 million motor vehicles on the world's roads, according to J.D. Power and Associates.
Nearly all burn either gas or diesel fuel. Both are petroleum products. Both produce undesirable tailpipe emissions.
Now consider Power's forecast. Everybody's favorite market, China, is projected to add 68 million motor vehicles to its roads within 15 years.
Asia's other huge market, India, typically has been an industry afterthought-a never-gonna-happen. Although much of India, like China, remains impoverished, it has a growing middle class. Power estimates that India will add 14 million vehicles within 15 years.
Analysts expect more growth from Brazil and other Latin American countries, smaller Asian nations such as Thailand, Eastern Europe, and, surprisingly, the U.S.
The U.S. may seem like a mature market, but its population continues to grow. And the percentage of residents owning vehicles is rising.
The total vehicle count in the U.S. will expand to 260 million from the current 230 million within 15 years, if Power predictions hold. (That's 30 million more vehicles, fellow commuters.)
The big number-global vehicle count-is expected to swell to 1.1 billion from today's 835 million within 15 years. That would be an increase of 265 million vehicles-more than the total number on U.S. roads today.
Other industry sages see similar growth. Garel Rhys, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales, predicts that the industry will crank out more vehicles in the next 20 years than the 1.8 billion it built in its first 110 years.
In a recent speech, Irv Miller, group vice president for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., said growth will force the industry to deal with ``the dark side of our great success-air quality and congestion.''
``It's clear that increasing vehicle production and use will place a heavy burden on the global environment,'' he said. ``It's a major challenge for all of us because our entire industry could become a prime target for a backlash at any time.''
He also said China has become the world's third-largest oil consumer.
The Energy Information Administration, the statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Energy, says the growing demand for oil will increase global consumption 57 percent-to 121 million barrels daily by 2025 from 77 million barrels daily in 2001.
And remember-a petroleum-thirsty world sucking up reserves at that rate would be increasingly vulnerable to the political extremism of the Middle East.
Air-quality concerns also are likely to gain force. Carbon dioxide emissions will increase, from 23.9 billion metric tons in 2001 to 37.1 billion metric tons in 2025, the energy administration says.
That's a 55-percent increase. Also factor in comparable increases in diesel soot and oxides of nitrogen.
Projections can be wrong. Disruptive events, whether negative such as wars or positive such as technological breakthroughs, define history.
But we have to look at what is visible today. What we can see coming vastly increases the pressure to replace petroleum-fueled engines with fuel cells, ethanol, electric vehicles, compressed natural gas or some combination of those.
As Larry Burns, General Motors Corp.'s fuel cell point man, put it recently: ``We really have to ask ourselves, `Can the world sustain 1 billion automobiles?'''
If they all burn petroleum, probably not.
Mr. Guilford is a staff reporter for Automotive News, a sister publication of Tire Business.