A hydrogen-powered fleet could replace half of the world's gas-guzzling cars in the next three years, according to Swiss entrepreneur Nicolas Hayek.
The Swatch Group chairman has launched a project to speed up research into an ecological energy system, harnessing sunlight to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. This could be used to power car engines.
Hayek was speaking at a conference staged by the world motoring organisation Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) in Lucerne on Wednesday. The theme of the conference was how automobile clubs can face up to environmental challenges.
Some experts say it will take decades before hydrogen-powered cars can go into commercial production, but Hayek believes that automobile giants have made enough progress in recent years to achieve results more quickly.
"It is a question of how many people work energetically on the solution. If all the automobile companies who are now working on fuel cells put 100,000 cars on the road in the next three or four years, we could have a fleet big enough to replace 50 per cent of the cars we currently have in the world in the next ten years," he said.
"But if we all put a lot of energy into it, encouraged by the consumer, we can put this fleet onto the market in two to three years."
A spaceship riddled with holes
Hayek is more usually associated with the Swiss watch industry, but he created a solar powered car called "Spirit of Biel" 20 years ago. He later designed the compact Smart car, originally intended to run off a hybrid engine.
"We are all sitting in a spaceship and we are not taking care of this ship for our children and future generations. We are shooting holes in it," he told the FIA conference audience.
"We need personal and individual mobility. It would be very bad for people if they cannot choose to get in their car and drive somewhere every day."
His latest venture - the Belenos Clean Power company - has adopted a four-pronged approach to advancing the technology of capturing hydrogen in order to power cars.
The first is to develop a commercially viable way of mass-producing hydrogen by splitting water into its component parts (electrolysis) using solar energy. Utilising the sun's power sidesteps the current problem that greenhouse gases are emitted during hydrogen production.
Hayek plans to "decentralise" the process by producing an electrolysis device no bigger than a washing machine that could fit into houses. Hydrogen would then be produced in people's homes, avoiding the need to build a large factory.
The project's other objectives are to increase the efficiency of fuel cells, batteries and photovoltaic cells so they could be used cheaply to drive cars with a performance similar to that of petrol-powered vehicles.
Rather than produce cars or engines, Belenos would make money from patenting the research and selling the rights to car companies.
Hayek told the FIA meeting – attended by international automobile associations, including Touring Club Switzerland – that they have a vital role to play.
"Your organisations can solve the energy problem much better than politicians. You have the confidence of your members because you defend the interests of mobility for all of us. In democracies, power always comes from the people," he said.
swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Lucerne
Belenos Clean Power's shareholders include Swatch Group, Hayek Engineering and Deutsche Bank. It was named after the sun god of the Celts and was founded last year.
Hayek has a seat on the company's board along with his son, Nicolas G Hayek Jnr, daughter Nayla, Deutsche Bank chief executive Josef Ackermann, Hollywood actor George Clooney, Swiss astronaut Claude Nicollier, Federal Institute of Technology Zurich president Ralph Eichler and Philippe Virdis, boss of Freiburg power company Group E.
Belenos is collaborating with Group E, the Federal Institute of Technology and the renowned Swiss research institution, Paul Scherrer Institute, and other worldwide enterprises to realise its four objectives.
The company plans to patent its research and sell licences to the automobile industry. Hayek believes it will be profitable in five years' time.
The FIA was formed in 1904 as a non-profit international umbrella group for automobile associations. It is also the governing body for motor sport, including Formula 1.
It represents 222 motoring groups from 130 countries on five continents. These members represent 100 million motorists worldwide.
It promotes the interests of its members - on issues such as safety, the environment, mobility and consumer law - to international bodies such as the United Nations and the European Union.
One of its members is Touring Club Switzerland, which was formed in 1896, originally as a cyclist club.