A handful of drivers in the U.S. are getting a first-hand glimpse at technology that may represent the future of personal transportation. Hydrogen fuel cell cars like the Chevy Equinox and the Honda Clarity are being loaned and leased to a few everyday commuters. Carmakers' lists of eager testers are long, however, and for now, hydrogen filling stations are few and far between.
Hydrogen fuel cells have been part of the auto industry's roster of advanced vehicles for years, and several companies are testing small fleets. They gained attention when President Bush announced in 2003 that the government would invest US$1.2 billion to encourage their development.
Tom Albert was among a small number of testers participating in "Project Driveway," a program that allowed customers to provide feedback on the Chevrolet Equinox electric hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
GM chose participants who live near a fuelling station based on their level of interest in fuel cell technology and enthusiasm for new technology. The company covered the cost of the hydrogen fuel, insurance and maintenance.
The Equinox, which holds about 4 kilograms of pressured hydrogen in tanks, generates electricity from a reaction between hydrogen and oxygen and delivers the gasoline equivalent of about 43 miles per gallon. While hydrogen is highly flammable, the hydrogen would diffuse into the air in a non-flammable concentration if one of the tanks was punctured or leaked.
The zero-emissions vehicles, which emit droplets of water, still face high hurdles because of a lack of fuelling stations and the high cost of developing the cars. Auto companies do not disclose costs, but the vehicles can cost $1 million and beyond because most are hand-built prototypes.
Hydrogen is typically extracted from natural gas, oil and coal, releasing carbon dioxide from those fuels into the atmosphere. Industry officials say using fossil fuels to make hydrogen is a transitional step, with the ultimate goal to produce it widely through renewable energy sources.
Patrick Serfass, director of technology development for the National Hydrogen Association, said using natural gas to produce hydrogen emits half the amount of overall emissions compared with a conventional gasoline-fuelled vehicle.
The test drives are being held while consumers are paying close to $4 for a gallon of gasoline, offering a window into what petroleum-free driving might look like.
The industry estimates hydrogen can be produced for $3 a gallon of gasoline equivalent with current technology, while the government's target is for the fuel to be available at $1.50 per gallon of gasoline equivalent by 2010.
In addition to the GM program, Honda is planning to lease about 200 FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cells to customers in California. One of the first customers is actress Jamie Lee Curtis.
The three-year leases cost $600 a month, which includes maintenance and collision coverage. The car has a range of about 270 miles per tank. Honda said it received 50,000 applications through its Web site but could only consider those living near stations in three southern California cities.
"You're not sacrificing anything, and actually for me it's an enhanced driving experience," said Jon Spallino, a Redondo Beach, Calif., businessman who previously drove an older version of the FCX and will lease the Clarity.
"I think that's a misconception people have, that you're puttering around in an underpowered cramped little soapbox," he said.
BMW has placed some of its Hydrogen 7 Series sedans in the hands of Hollywood celebrities and others for tests.
The Hydrogen 7 has an internal combustion engine that can run on gasoline or liquid hydrogen, an advantage because of the lack of hydrogen fuelling stations. It can travel about 130 miles on hydrogen and shift to a gasoline-powered engine, with a range of 300 miles.
"It's allowed people to live with these vehicles in a way that they don't have to feel restricted in the distances they can travel or where they can go," said BMW spokesperson Dave Buchko.
Automakers say the tests show the cars can perform like a conventional vehicle, bolstering their argument that a network of fuelling stations is needed. There are 61 operational hydrogen fuelling stations in the United States, according to the National Hydrogen Association, and nearly half are located in California.
A panel with the National Academies of Science recently concluded the U.S. would need to invest $200 billion, including $55 billion in government funding, between 2008 and 2023 to make the vehicles viable.
The report estimated that the maximum number of hydrogen vehicles on the roads by 2020 would be 2 million, a tiny fraction of the nation's fleet.
Albert said after more than 2,300 miles and two months in the Equinox, he sees the potential. He used the vehicle like any other and said the only limitations were the lack of fuelling stations and the vehicle's 200-mile range.
He offered plenty of suggestions to GM's team, even feedback from his cranky baby. Albert's first child, Tyler, was born Feb. 4, and the family jokingly called him the "first hydrogen baby."
"As I was putting him in the car, I was wondering, 'Is it the engine noise that quiets the baby or the road noise?' We had no idea," Albert said. After a short drive, Tyler's cries subsided, offering some insight for future dads.
"We found out it's probably the road noise and the motion," Albert said with a smile. "It didn't have much to do with the engine noise since there's no internal combustion engine."
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