Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
April 15th, 2009

Driving Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles

In the last column I wrote about the National Hydrogen Association annual conference and that it was both informative and generated unprecedented attendance from the public.  One of the most exciting aspects of the conference was the opportunity to drive hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, a first for me.  I drove three vehicles, and the experience was, in a word spectacular.

The first vehicle was the Daimler A-Class F-Cell from Mercedes.  A small, compact car, the driving experience was incredible smooth, responsive and of course very quiet as there was no motor that needed muffling.  It was unnerving to accelerate with no sound.  The car handling was very tight and responsive.  It handled like a dream and was the most fun I have had driving a compact car.

The second car to drive was the Equinox Fuel Cell small SUV from GM.  While I am not a fan of SUVs this vehicle is wonderful. I pressed ‘pedal to the metal’ and the acceleration was immediate and silent.  All aspects of handling, braking and acceleration were superb.  When my test drive was over, I asked to have the hood lifted so I could actually see the fuel cell.  Where the engine usually is in an ICE (Internal Combustion Engine), there is a fuel cell about the size of a large beverage cooler.  There are many fewer moving parts than an ICE vehicle which of course will, when the vehicle goes on sale, dramatically cut down on repairs and maintenance.

Currently the Equinox Fuel Cell vehicle is on the street for demo purposes in New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. allowing various constituencies to get a first hand experience in driving the future.  It is this vehicle, along with electric plug-ins and plug-in hybrids that should be the future of GM over the next decade.  After my drive, as the car went out again on another test drive, I looked down at the exhaust pipe to see droplets of water coming out and hitting the pavement.  Think about that!  Water instead of exhaust, like droplets of rain, not noxious CO2 emissions!

The third car I drove was the Honda FCX Clarity.  Unlike the first two vehicles, which had clear markings that they were Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars, the Honda looked like a sleek, brand new dark burgundy sedan.  Inside it was a dream with unique styling, dashboard visuals and a shift mechanism that was finger tip easy to use.  As with the other two vehicles, it was smooth, tight and quiet to drive.  Honda has a small number of these vehicles leased to consumers at $600 per month in areas in LA where there are a few hydrogen fueling stations.

Since I drove these three cars, the Honda FCX was declared the 2009 World Green Car.  The 59 international jurors also included the Mitsubishi IMiEV and the Toyota iQ as the other two finalists for the 2009 Green Car Award, but the Honda that I drove won top honors.  The jurors cited the 250 mile range, 72 mpg and zero tailpipe emissions of the FCX Clarity and for taking the “bold step” of leasing it to customers in California.  This award was in advance of the New York International Auto Show.

So, what and when is the future of hydrogen fuel cars in the U.S.?  The problem is scale.  There are not enough cars for companies to build a network of fueling stations.  There are not enough fueling stations for car companies to ramp up production.  Clearly what needs to happen is for the federal government to provide investment funds to trigger speed to scalability.  As it did in the 1930s and 1940s with hydroelectric power with the building of dams and later in the 1950s and 1960s with the creation of the Interstate highway system the federal government needs to commit funds to help private industry develop this new form of energy and vehicular transportation.

The $10 to 30 billion needed to do this over the next 10 years is a drop in the bucket of the current bank bail out packages.  These funds would go a very long way to creating non-polluting cars that would not be dependent on foreign oil.  Private industry is ready to invest along side the government and is just waiting for the clear direction that this future can happen- and within the next decade.  Zero emissions, high mileage. quiet efficient transportation and a dramatically increased energy source developed right here in the U.S.   What am I missing?

Just as the Obama administration has correctly identified a new smart 21st century grid and infrastructure system, they need to support this clean energy and transportation model.   The electric hybrid car, the pure plug-in electric car and the hydrogen fuel cell car are the future of the car industry.  Various versions of the electric cars are already on the road and will come on line with greater scale in 2010-11.  The hydrogen fuel cell car can, and should be a couple of years behind in coming to scale.  All of these cars have the potential for home fueling.  The future of the automobile is in our hands, why wait?

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