In the beginning…the internal combustion engine (ICE) was and has been the primary source of power in automobiles for over 100 years. During that time, the ICE was made cleaner, more efficient, more reliable, more durable and more affordable. For all of these reasons, the ICE will be a formidable foe to replace.

According to a Green Car Journal Winter 2005 interview with Bill Ford, Ford Motor Company’s chairman, CEO and the great grandson of Henry Ford, “I believe that hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines are the bridge between today’s gasoline hybrids and tomorrow’s fuel cell vehicles. We are investing significant resources to advance and demonstrate this technology. We’ve built 100 airport shuttle vans powered by hydrogen internal combustion engines for 2006.”

Over a century ago, Henry Ford showed amazing vision as the automotive pioneer who conceived of the mass-produced automobile; however this was a man who also had an environmental side, using panels from wooden shipping containers as his Model T floorboards and experimenting with soybeans in component manufacturing.

According to an excerpt from USA Today magazine, General Motors’ vice president of research and planning, Larry Burns confirmed industry acceptance of hydrogen as the eventual replacement for gasoline. “I think we’re beginning to reach a tipping point,” he said, standing next to the Sequel hydrogen concept vehicle introduced in January 2006 in Detroit. “Our industry is very serious.”

However satisfying the filling needs of these new hybrids now presents a major issue. Before hydrogen-fueled vehicles can be mass-produced, standards must be agreed upon for compatible hydrogen filling stations around the world. Most experts hold that the switch to hydrogen won’t come for 15 to 20 years because of the need not only to design and build the cars but to figure out the fuel and then build fueling stations. According to Green Car Journal’s Ron Cogan, “Without infrastructure, nobody develops vehicles; without vehicles, nobody develops infrastructure.”

BMW, General Motors, and Honda are currently working in cooperation on a project to develop tank couplings for filling vehicles with liquid hydrogen fuel. The project focus is on developing and standardizing nozzles, filler necks and the technologies required to safely supply low-temperature liquid hydrogen to vehicles. The international makeup of this particular group from Europe, Asia, and the U.S. brings legitimacy to developments from this collaboration. This project should be completed by late 2006.

Currently Japan has about 15 hydrogen fueling stations, with 10 in Tokyo. Within three years, the Japanese will start production of the hydrogen version Mazda RX-8. By that time, the number of fueling stations is expected to double. The RX-8 burns hydrogen in the car’s rotary engine resulting in some emissions but far less than a gasoline engine. The RX-8 is called a hybrid because if it runs out of hydrogen, it can switch to a separate gasoline tank. The car will most likely go first to government and corporate fleets.

Ford has announced that it will convert half of its vehicle models to gasoline-electric hybrid propulsion in the next five years resulting in annual hybrid production volume of 250,000 vehicles.Ford introduced a 2.3-liter internal combustion engine that ran on hydrogen in late 2004. It met the toughest emissions requirements, produced virtually no CO2, and delivered performance comparable to a gasoline ICE. Today the Ford Focus fuel cell vehicle is one of the industry’s first hybridized fuel cell vehicles. Its hybrid technology combines improved range and performance with hydrogen powered fuel cells. Ford is the only manufacturer working simultaneously on these three technologies – hybrids, hydrogen internal combustion engines (ICEs) and fuel cells.

In January at the Los Angeles Auto Show, the 2006 Mercury Mariner Hybrid – Lincoln-Mercury division’s first gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle, earned the distinction of Green Car Journal’s 2006 Green Car of the Year. Jurors of the competition included, auto great Carroll Shelby and racer Mario Andretti; Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club; Frances Beinecke, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council; Jean-Michel Cousteau, president of Ocean Futures Society; Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists; and Paul MacCready, president of the efficiency-focused firm AeroVironment. The Mercury Mariner Hybrid is a fully functioning, four-wheel drive SUV. It earned Advanced Technology Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (AT-PZEV) levels in California and Super Ultra Low Emission Vehicle (SULEV) levels in others. For performance buffs, its efficient Duratec 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine and electric motor features a combined 155 peak horsepower, enough power for any driving situation.

At the 39th Tokyo Motor Show in October 2005, over one and a half million visitors were able to experience the industry’s seriousness about zero-emission alternatives to gasoline. Six automakers rolled out new versions of hydrogen-powered vehicles. Collaborations on hybrid development go industry wide. Audi, Porsche, and Volkswagen are developing a hybrid power plant for their vehicles, with Audi taking the lead. Volkswagen and Shanghai Automotive are working jointly to bring a hybrid vehicle to China. Another collaboration to develop hybrid technology for their vehicles is in the works with BMW, GM, and DaimlerChrysler.

In early 2006, Europe’s BioEthanol for Sustainable Transportation (BEST) project launched its four year effort to accelerate the introduction of alternative fuels. Comprised of three automakers, including Saab Automobile, Ford Europe and Omni, Scania, five ethanol producers, and four universities, the program aims to establish ethanol fueling in 10 locations over four years with at least 140 ethanol pumps.

And to sweeten the deal for Hybrid consumers, this year’s hybrid drivers are getting a bit of red carpet treatment in reward for their commitment to alternative fuels. The Farmers Insurance Group of Companies is the first U.S. insurance company to offer an insurance discount to customers who own a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle. The discount, in effect since October 1, 2005, is for all California customers who own a hybrid or alternative fuel vehicle. The discount is in response to a growing trend: Citing data from R.L. Polk & Co, California tops the list for numbers of registered hybrid vehicles in the U.S., with 2004 showing a 102 percent increase in California hybrid vehicles over 2003. The 2005 numbers are not available yet but are predicted to follow suit.

In the City of Baltimore, parking discounts for drivers of hybrid electric vehicles are in effect. For hybrid drivers holding parking contracts at any of 15 of the city’s participating parking garages, up to 45 percent will be taken off parking fees. However the program has a 200 vehicle limit and only applies to the Honda Insight, Honda Civic Hybrid, and Toyota Prius hybrid drivers holding parking contracts at any of 15 of the city’s participating parking garages. Reduced parking meter prices for hybrid drivers are also under consideration.

Recently declaring in his State of the Union address that America “is addicted to oil”, President Bush outlined the Advanced Energy Initiative-a 22% increase in research funding focused on power generation and transportation. Hydrogen, cellulosic ethanol and battery research for hybrid and electric cars received specific mention in the address. The President’s 2007 budget will appropriate funding for the Advanced Energy Initiative. This is a small footprint of what’s happening with hybrid technology as of early 2006. As the price of oil and resources such as steel continue to escalate, so to with a little corporate push and vision, will the rate of hybrid market infiltration.