Down the road

Conference explores ways to reduce gasoline use by vehicles, exhibits Ford pickup that runs on propane

Yesterday, the cars of the future were also the cars of the present.

Academics and business leaders gathered at Ohio State University to talk about ways to reduce gasoline use in transportation. The three-day conference, called Moving Ahead 2010, featured a succession of vehicles that run on electricity, natural gas and propane.

With so many candidates for the car of the future, the question was: Which technology will win out? There was no simple answer.

"In our view, the key to winning this race is not declaring a winner until the technology has actually won the race," said John Mendel, executive vice president of American Honda Motor Co., one of the company's top executives in North America.

With that said, Mendel had suggestions. He thinks that fuel cells will eventually be the dominant technology, meaning that cars will generate their own electric power using hydrogen or natural gas.

But he thinks that each technology should be developed, to see how each advances and how customers respond.

"Developing multiple pathways makes more sense than trying to pick tomorrow's winners," he said yesterday at the conference.

The vehicles were on display at Ohio State and at the Ohio Expo Center. They included a gas-electric hybrid bus that will soon go into service for the Central Ohio Transit Authority.

"It's a lot quieter," said Dale Knutson, COTA's training supervisor, speaking from the bus driver's seat. A federal grant paid $2.1 million toward the cost of buying six of the buses.

The batteries are on top of the bus, making it slightly taller than a typical one. Because of the added height, COTA is being careful to avoid routes with low bridges.

A few feet from the bus was a Ford pickup truck than runs on propane.

"It drives like a very peppy diesel," said Shaun Brennan, regional operations manager for Ferrellgas, the truck's owner. The fuel is stored in a 55-gallon tank in the bed.

Propane burns more cleanly than regular unleaded, he said.

This was also the case for one of Honda's natural-gas cars. Andrew Chiarelli reached into the tailpipe to show that there was no debris, even though the car had been driven more than 1,000 miles.

Mark Shanahan, Gov. Ted Strickland's top energy adviser, said he was most impressed by what he saw regarding electric vehicles.

"We have a great opportunity here in central Ohio to be a hub for electric vehicles," he said. "It's not just building the cars and selling them. It's figuring out how the utility grid is going to provide power, and there's a lot of thought being given to that here."

Columbus-based American Electric Power is one of the key companies working on how to modify the grid.

But AEP's interests go beyond the power system itself. The company was at the conference displaying its plug-in hybrid bucket truck, a vehicle that will sharply reduce emissions when utility crews do routine repair work.

Actions like this are steps toward what Mendel said could be a thousand-fold reduction in carbon emissions.

"By focusing on the same finish line and by making certain our technology solutions meet the needs of our customers, I know we can advance personal mobility and protect the planet," he said.

- Dan Gearino

Click here to view the story on The Columbus Dispatch.

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