While the term “hybrid” is largely viewed by the motoring public as a vehicle powered by a combination gasoline-electric powertrain, OEMs appear to be taking the concept much further. Indeed, according to Mujeeb Ijaz, Ford Motor Co.’s manager of fuel cell vehicle engineering, hybrids can now be seen as launching pads that will lead to redefining cars and light trucks as we know them.

The essential element of this future think, Ijaz told FleetOwner at the recent Chicago Auto Show, is dropping the bulky internal combustion engine completely out of the vehicle and replacing it with a fuel cell-electric generator power source.

“Once you take the engine ‘brick’ out of the vehicle, you really open up the design possibilities,” said Ijaz. “Without that big engine, you add a lot more space back into the design – that gives you a larger vehicle without having to expand its size.”

Ijaz said the key is deploying smaller fuel cells – Ford has reduced their size by a factor of two – married to an electric generator and battery pack. Called the Hy Series Drive, this system uses a hydrogen-powered fuel cell to keep the lithium-ion battery system fully charged. This battery system that can also be recharged by plugging the vehicle into any electric power source with a common heavy-duty extension cord.

“The battery is the primary source of power – we use the fuel cell to charge it,” Ijaz explained.. “By plugging the vehicle in, you can get up to 25 miles in range on the battery alone. With a full load of hydrogen, you get 200 miles of range.”

To get as large a load of hydrogen on the vehicle as possible, Ford mounted a long 4.5-kilogram storage tank under the vehicle between the frame rails and axles for maximum protection. “Making the tank long is the most cost-efficient way, because the ‘domed’ ends are the most expensive part of the tank,” Ijaz said.

The fuel cell has also been redesigned with a new membrane and dehumidifier so the system retains as little water as possible (water is the only emissions produced by fuel cell vehicles). That way, on cold nights, water vapor won’t freeze up the fuel cell’s internal parts, he noted.

“This new system is half the weight and cost of previous fuel cell drivetrains and can operate in winter much more easily,” Ijaz said. “And because it’s so much smaller, we can really drive design changes to maximize the space efficiency of the entire vehicle.”