Car Companies "Blocking" Alternative Fuels?

One expert thinks so.

Not quite shades of the fabled “100 MPG carb,” but not a good side (and from what I’ve read elsewhere, pretty accurate).

Of course, promising automotive technology has been “squashed” by the government in the past.

(emphasis in original)

The nice thing about turbines is that they can run on anything liquid and flammable. I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that Preston Tucker was researching turbine powered cars when he got shut down.

Well 22 mpg doesn’t sound great, even if you can run it on parifin or whale oil. While most auto manuf’s seem to be going the hybrid route, it seems Chrysler will tend towards diesel , which offers a simular boost in MPG, at a cheeper price, and proven technology. It does have some alternative fuel applications, such as bio-diesel, and for that matter can usually be run on home heating oil or kerosene.

Pretty good for 1981 - I’m sure, had they actually released this, it would’ve been further improved in the intervening 25 years.

Interesting link; thanks for posting it. As a kid, I built a 1/25-scale model of a '63 Chrysler turbine from a kit. I thought it was the coolest.

The article doesn’t give the horsepower rating of the fifth-generation turbine, but assuming it’s around the same output as the one used in the '63 cars, 22 MPG from 130 HP doesn’t seem amazing-amazing. Likewise, although the turbine may indeed run on different fuels, all the ones listed are refined hydrocarbon products so the main impact of large-scale adoption of turbine vehicles would be to alter the demand for different kinds of refinery product rather than reduce fuel usage overall.

Anyway, the article seems to give a perfectly valid reason why the program was finally abandoned:

I’ll just conclude by mentioning that several US railroads, particularly the Union Pacific, experimented extensively with the use of gas turbines in locomotives, from the late 1940s onward. The objectives here were to produce higher output than diesels of similar size and to take advantage of the multi-fuel capability. Economy was not a major factor, so far as I can tell.

On the face of it, the ability to produce vast amounts of power at full (and more or less constant load) would seem to have made this an ideal application, but in fact they generally gained a reputation as a) fuel hogs (due to high consumption at idle) and ‘hanger queens’ (due to poor reliability in the dusty railroad environment), and UP took its fleet out of service around 1970.

Later in the 1970s, there was a brief flurry of interest in turbine-powered passenger trains, and a number were built for the French national railways and, later, Amtrak. These were technically quite successful, but the particular design built incorporated fixed train lengths with semi-permanantly coupled cars, making it impossible to easily adjust passenger capacity for demand. Amtrak’s turbos were were mainly used in New York State and I believe they are currently mothballed.

Despite the general lack of success so far, I believe there may be some scope for hybrid turbine-electric road vehicles; if so, I’d expect to see them in truck and bus applications sooner than in passenger cars.

While I’ve not read any specific numbers, apparently, the final version of the turbines used in the 1963 cars was much improved at the end of the program, and the published stats are all taken from the beginning of the program. If you’ll recall, a couple of years ago, Chrysler had a propane powered turbine race car that they had developed. (It turned out to be unsuitable for racing because the high speed turns played hell on the engine, but for the average joe who doesn’t go close to 200 MPH, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.)

True, but that’s just the ones listed. There’s no reason why you couldn’t run it on biodiesel, propane, or even hydrogen. There’d need to be some minor modifications for the propane and hydrogen (different fuel tanks), but not a significant retooling.

Fuel consumption at idle can be easily fixed (hybrid cars shut themselves off and restart themselves at traffic lights), and from everything I’ve read about the 63 Chrysler turbine cars, they didn’t have reliability problems. (See here for a website by a guy who’s family test drove one of the cars for several months.)

Of course, that’s not a problem with the turbine, that’s a problem with the train design.

IIRC, one of the European bus manufacturers has built a few of them.

First of all, turbines can’t quite run on “anything”; while they can accept a remarkable number of different fuels, from heavy diesels to lightweight petroleum distillates–some can even run alcohols–they’ll get significantly different performance based upon what they’re optimally designed to do.

Other issues with turbines include:
[li]the high tolerance of manufacturing required by such an extremely high speed mechanism,[/li][li]the complexity of the fuel injection system; instead of 8, 12, or 16 ports, you have dozens or hundreds in an intricate manifold all around the stator,[/li][li]the mantainance requirements of said mechanism; should a bearing wear, you’re going to throw a turbine or connective link quickly,[/li][li]the noise–turbines produce high pitched whines that are difficult to baffle out,[/li][li]the transmission/powertrain system; a turbine operates efficiently at a very narrow range of operating speeds, so you have to have a CVT or an electric hybrid type of powertrain,[/li][li]the inertia of the American automobile establishment; American automakers have traditionally been slow to adopt even minor improvements for fear of risking present sales.[/li][/ul]

This isn’t to say turbine-driven cars–particularly hybrid-eletric type setups where the turbine strictly powers the electric wheel motors and charges the storage system–aren’t a worthwhile area to develop; while in school I had one class project where conceptually developed a methanol-powered hybrid electric turbine. The problem was, were it to be built, it would have taken up the back of a pickup truck for the necessary size of the engine and storage battery. Battery technology has become smaller in recent years (thanks to, in part, eletric vehicle research) and the turbine size could be reduced, but still, it’s not a technology ready for launch on the consumer market. Those familiar with the history of turbochargers (which are a miniature turbines that help boost the compression of an engine at times of peak load) can appreciate the difficulty in building a significantly larger turbine at a commodity price point.

Frankly, the car companies don’t give a rat’s ass what you burn in your car; if they thought they could manufacture and sell a car that runs off of unwanted babies, they’d build it. But car companies–particularly the Americans–are extremely risk-adverse, and with good reason; most consumers are not early adopters, and with bulk car sales there are significant breakpoints in manufacturing cost per volume; if you only project selling 5000/year of a unit then you probably can’t make a profit at $25K, even for a bare bones vehicle. If you can count on selling 10,000 or 20,000, then you can justify investing in the tooling and vendor support, but then, you don’t want to risk alienating the public by an unacceptable design and have all that inventory on hand, so you go with what you know.

The problem isn’t the car companies; they just want to make a profit. The problem is the market; creating a new market segment is difficult and risky, and for companies that aren’t especially profitable or well-managed anyway, it’s too big of a risk without a sizable inducement in the form of government tax credits or regulatory authority. No conspiracy required.


Except, of course, with the recent rise in gas prices, folks have been flocking to the hybrid vehicles in droves and they’re still relatively new. So, I don’t think that it’s a case of Americans not being “early adopters,” but more a case of the right technology being pitched to them. Frankly, how many of the new gimmicks on cars are really nifty? Most of it’s, well, cheap stuff (IMHO) like seat heaters, LEDs and the like. Outside of the hybrid drives, there’s not been a significant change to the technology of how we drive cars, since the introduction of the automatic transmission.

Doesn’t have to be a conspiracy, it can just be simple inertia and an unwillingness to think differently, and I’m sure everyone will agree that American car makers are guilty of that.

Well, maybe so, but I’m a bit dubious about how practical it is to spool up and shut down a turbine every few minutes in city driving, as might be done for a passenger-car hybrid. Really, I don’t see how this would be much better than the current setup, using a small gasoline or diesel engine.

For the second part, my understanding is that Chrysler’s 50-car '63 test program lasted two years. It seems to me the cars were pretty reliable in that short span, but I’m curious what the maximum expected lifespan of the engine was (in miles or hours) and the whether the lifespan maintenance costs were comparable to those for piston engines.

With that said, and considering a turbine’s high power-to-weight ratio, I’m a bit surprised that someone hasn’t attempted to market a turbine sports car, the way that Mazda has carved out a (small) niche for its Wankel rotary engines.

I’m not an automotive engineer, though, so I’ll leave any further comment on passenger-car turbines for others.

Agreed. My point was that many innovations have not gained wide acceptance due, perhaps unfairly, to defects of design not necessarily directly related to that of the main innovation.

Upon further review of the Wikipedia entry, the reliability problems of UP’s turbine freight locomotives were due in part to the railroad’s decision to reduce fuel costs by using cheap Bunker C fuel oil, which when burned produced particulate matter that shortened the life of the turbine blades. The French turbine passenger trains were in part built to test strategies for the development of what eventually became the TGV high-speed lines. The fixed consists, I believe, were done to get around stability problems with conventionally coupled stock at high speeds. It later became apparent that at the train scheduling frequencies planned, electrified power taken from overhead was an economically sound choice, and the turbines became orphaned.

I have no problem forseeing greater popularity of hybrid technology for movement of cargo over road or rail; indeed, a US company is making a bit of a splash with a new railroad switching locomotive they call the ‘Green Goat’, which operates off batteries charged by a truck-sized diesel, resulting in far less fuel usage and exhaust emissions when compared to a conventional 1500 HP diesel-electric switcher. Maybe some of these applications will use small turbines as well.

Well, it all depends upon how long the car’s sitting for. So long as you don’t apply a brake to stop the turbine from spinning (disengage it from the generator when you cut the fuel), if the stop isnt terribly long, then the spool up time, wouldn’t be that great when you stepped on the gas.

The only way it would be, is if the turbine had a lower fuel consumption while running.

I think that there’s some info on that on the turbine car page I linked to earlier. I know that the St. Louis Museum which has one, basically pulled the car out, gave it a bit of freshening up, and then let a bunch of reporters take it for a spin on the interstate. IIRC, the engine, etc. didn’t need much work to be operational, which isn’t something you can say about most IC cars that have sat in a museum for 40 or so years.

There’s a company that’s buying up helicopter turbines that have passed their FAA limits and putting them into motorcycles (Jay Leno’s got one) and some cars.

I wouldn’t blame this on auto industry short-sightedness, or grand conspiracies. It’s simple economics. The fact is, there’s still a huge supply of oil, especially at +60/barrel, where all kinds of oil and tar sands become economically feasible. And $3/gallon gasoline is still pretty cheap. As long as it remains at that kind of price, you’re not going to see customers willing to accept significantly higher purchase costs or significant vehicle shortcomings in exhange for efficiency.

We can see that today. We can make all kinds of cars that get close to 50 miles per gallon. A whole range of subcompact cars with very average gas engines can get up around 40 mpg. And how well do they sell? Not very. The auto companies aren’t stupid. If they invest tens of millions in an exotic turbine car, then try to sell it to the public for $5,000 more than a non-turbine equivalent, they won’t sell a single one unless it has significant performance advantages or awesome mileage. That’s just reality.

All the auto companies are doing research into exotic fuels and powerplant technologies. Flex-fuel vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells, various types of hybrids… If any one of these companies could figure out a way to make a car that has no drawbacks in terms of price or performance but got 50% better fuel mileage, don’t you think they would?

Of coourse, Canada burns a lot of natural gas extracting the oil from the tar sands. . . .

Last time I checked, there was a long waiting list to get hybrid cars at your local Toyota or Honda dealer. Meanwhile, Ford and GM are teetering on the edge of banruptcy.

True, but in order to find out if any of the exotic technologies will work, you’ve got to spend money on researching them. Everything I’ve read has said that GM and DaimlerChrysler’s hybrid programs are jokes. As for Ford’s, well, I’m biased against them, so I’ll withhold comment.

Toyota and Honda are making nice profits doing it, they’re even selling they’re even selling their engines to their competitors. Having read about the hideously complex and inefficent processes that go on at GM, it’s a wonder they’re able to produce anything at all, muchless develop a new technology like hybrids.

Could it be that Toyota and Honda is limiting their production of these cars to keep demand up, much like M$ did with it’s X-Box right before Christmas? It’s great free advertizing.

Preach it, brother! Ford was doing research on hydrogen fuel in the 1980s. GM was a leader in battery technology. All of them have offered flexible fuel vehicles for at least a decade.

The problem is, there’s no infrastructure to support the technology. Want a car that runs on E-85? Natural gas? Propane? Waste grease? You can get them, but you’d better move next door to the one fueling station that probably exists in your state, and don’t go more than 100 miles away so you can make it back without refueling.

The auto companies will start mass-producing alternative fuel vehicles when there’s a market for them. The oil companies will set up fueling stations when there’s a market for them. And of course, there won’t be a market until there are enough cars and fueling stations to reach a critical mass.

And not heavily promoted them. Not to mention both of them have histories of really fouling up things, like the 4-6-8 engine, the Pinto, the Corvair, hell GM forked out $5 billion (that’s 5 Carl Sagan Units) to get Saturn up and running, and the bulk of that money went to buying the town of Spring Hill, TN.

IMHO, the problem is more realistically one of production, not distribution. We simply can’t produce alternative fuels at a significantly lower cost than conventional fuels. People aren’t going to be interested in a car that gets (roughly) the same mileage as their current car, if the fuel it runs on is about the same price as gasoline. If you can fill your car up for $5 (for example) and it gets the same mileage, you’re not going to complain if you have to go out of your way to fill the tank, it’s worth it to save $30-$50 a tank.

Drop the price of hydrogen to mere pennies, and people will flock to it (and it’s certainly available, I see tanker trucks hauling liquid hydrogen all the time). You do that, and folks won’t wait for the car makers to build cars that can run on hydrogen, some crafty engineer will start selling kits to convert your car over to hydrogen (not all that difficult to do, but you don’t have much range on a tank of fuel), the car makers will soon follow, as will the oil companies in adding hydrogen pumps to their filling stations.

You’ll have to parson me if I question that you see liquid hydrogen tankers “all the time”; owing to its volitility there are restrictions on transport. (I don’t have my DoT manual on hazmat and explosives transportation available right now for the specifics but it ain’t like hauling liquid nitrogen or milk.)

Converting a gas IC-powered passenger vehicle to run on hydrogen is somewhat more complex than your statement would lead one to believe. The problems of getting a gasoline-powered engine to efficiently burn hydrogen aside, you have a seriously complicated problem in the fuel storage and injector system; unlike gasoline, which is fairly inert at standard temperature and pressure, hydrogen is both vaporous and highly volitile. Your storage system has to be capable of maintaining significant pressure and assuring pressure integrity in a crash; your fuel lines have to be secure and resistant to hydrogen corrosion (i.e. low carbon stainless steel), and your fuel injector has to be modified to fit the fluid characteristics of liquid hydrogen. For a purpose designed hydrogen burner, the tradeoffs are that a fuel injection system is much simpler (by virtue of hydrogen vaporizing under STP), the expanding fluid can be used to cool the block, and of course, you can eliminate the complex exhaust system; you go straight from the exhaust manifold to the pipe without any catalytic converters or recirc valves.

Distribution and bulk storage is also a problem. Not only does it have the above mentioned OTR complications, but pumping it into storage facilities and storing it for long periods require a completey gas-tight storage system that is capable of withstanding thousands of PSI. That’s by no means impossible–we store pressurized gas for welding, or breathing gases for scuba diving routinely–but it does require much stronger and more secure connections than the ambient pressure gasoline storage systems. This would end up being very costly for distributors and a greater explosion hazard than gasoline or even LPG.

Finally (as you mention) the cost of making hydrogen fuel is a problem. Gasoline is ready-made as a scalable, transportable fuel source; we just pump it right out of the ground. Hydrogen has to be “cracked” from water, methane, or some other more complex compound, and this requires energy–typically more energy than can be received by the simple oxidation (burning) of it. So we need to have some other way of generating power in order to create diatomic hydrogen. Until fusion becomes viable, or some renewable source-to-conversion (solar, wind, geothermal) is economically viable, a hydrogen based transportation economy isn’t likely, even notwithstanding the logistical and conversion expense and difficulty of handling hydrogen fuel. I suspect that by the time we’ve cracked that problem, closed circuit fuel cells and/or storage batteries will have improved to the point of making the handling of compressed liquid hydrogen noncompetitive.

BTW, general note: the “gas companies” are often held up as big demons conspiring to suppress alternative fuels in order to maintain their profits; while assuring their stockholders that the business of pumping petroleum out of the ground and refining it is their mainstay and that profits will come endlessly for the foreseeable future, the truth is they they also invest a considerable amount of money in alternative energy research in hopes of globbing onto the next new thing, rather than be left behind like candlemakers in Edison’s wake. Much of the private funding for fusion research once came from oil companies, and methods of synthisizing potential fuels are a mainstay of research funds. They’re not investing in solar or wind for obvious reasons, but these technologies appear to be restricted in magnitude and scalability given current technological constrants.

For reference, [thread=328226]here[/thread]'s a previous thread on the possibilties of a hydrogen economy.


I failed to include a link on hydrogen embrittlement in the previous post. As I mentioned, fuel system components, especially the fuel lines, have to be protected from embrittlement-related corrosion damage and fatigue resulting from the same (each of which can compound the other). This is a non-trivial problem; low carbon stainless tubing is the cheapest solution, but based upon my experience it increases component cost by about a factor of five over standard high strength steel tubes (hence, why galvanized steel is typically used in high pressure hydraulic systems.) You’ll also have issues with corrosion pitting within the block, particularly in finely machined areas, and any leakage beyond piston seals can lead to damage of crankshaft and conrods via acidic compounds formed by free hydrogen reacting with carbons, sulphuric compounds, and other contaminants in engine lubrication. So, converting existing engines is not a viable, long-term solution, and designing mass market, purpose-built engines and fuel storage and delivery systems requries tighter tolerances, less reactive lubricants, and more expensive or exotic materials.

This isn’t to say it can’t be done, but the cost/benefit ratio really starts to drop once you look at the particulars. Converting to a hydrogen-based transportation system is more complex, and has more technological hurdles, then is allowed for by advocates.


The estimates of recoverable barrels take into account the energy cost of recovering them. However, there are serious greenhouse gas problems that need to be addressed, for sure. My personal favorite idea would be to use nuclear power to generate the steam needed to extract the oil. It’s the perfect application for nuclear - you can run it at a high duty cycle, the energy is concentrated in one place, and you don’t need to transform the heat energy into any secondary sources like electrical or hydrogen.

Hybrid’s currently make up on a fraction of a percent of any of the car maker’s products. Ford has a hybrid, and it’s very popular. GM has a whole range of hybrids coming out next year. But hybrid isn’t a panacea. I wasn’t even thinking of hybrids - I was thinking of cars like the Toyota Echo or the Volkswagon Jetta TDI. We can make high-mileage cars today without ANY exotic technology. Just make them light and small, and give them tiny engines. The problem is, there’s only a relatively small market for such vehicles. That’s just reality. People simply aren’t willing to give up significant comfort, significant performance, or much extra cost to buy a high-efficiency vehicle. That’s the reality of the economics of car ownership in North America.

Small cars are more popular in Europe, but there are many reasons other than higher gas prices. Narrower roads, more difficult parking, congestion, and the fact that you don’t have to travel hundreds or thousands of miles between destinations. All these factors push people towards smaller cars.

GM has put over a billion dollars into hydrogen fuel cell research. GM had a certified electric car on the road 15 years ago. GM and Ford have both invested in automotive turbines. Ford has big investments in flex-fuel vehicles. GM and Chrysler have both made big investments in efficiency, including displacement on demand technology.
As I said, if an auto company could come out with a car as good as its competitors cars, for the same price, but which operated 50% cheaper, they’d own the market. They’d ALL like to do it. There’s no conspiracy here. It’s just a really freaking hard problem.

GM has a 505 horspower, normally aspirated V8 that gets 24 mpg on the highway. That’s pretty damned impressive. A lot of their cars have excellent fuel efficiency for their class.