By David R. Baker
The moment was pure Schwarzenegger.
In April 2004, California’s then-governor paraded before the press a specially equipped Toyota Highlander that ran on hydrogen and spat nothing out the tailpipe but water.
Fuel cell cars, he said, would soon appear on California’s roads, helping the state wean itself off of oil and fight global warming. Speaking to a pack of dignitaries and reporters at UC Davis, he committed California to building up to 200 hydrogen fueling stations by 2010, an effort that came to be known as the “hydrogen highway.”
Nine years later, fuel cell cars still haven’t arrived.
Public attention — and government funding — shifted to biofuels and electric cars. While some automakers pushed forward on fuel cells, others placed their bets on plug-ins, introducing mass-market electric cars that are slowly but steadily gaining sales.
The hydrogen highway initiative sputtered out. Only nine hydrogen stations are now open to the public in California, serving a fleet of roughly 250 fuel cell cars deployed as experiments.
But in 2014, that may finally, finally change.
Hyundai plans to start leasing a fuel cell version of its Tucson sports utility vehicle in March or April. At recent auto shows in Tokyo and Los Angeles, both Honda and Toyota showed off fuel cell cars expected to hit the market in 2015.
And California’s state government is getting back in the game. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will devote $20 million per year to building hydrogen fueling stations. The funding, drawn from existing vehicle registration fees, will last through 2024 and pay for at least 100 stations.
300 miles on a tank
To the true believers, fuel cell cars offer the promise of zero-emission driving without some of the drawbacks that have plagued plug-ins. They can go up to 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen — farther than any electric other than the Tesla Motors Model S. And refilling takes less than 10 minutes, a speed no electric-car charging station can match. Hydrogen pumps even look and work much like their counterparts that dispense gas.
“We see in fuel cells a vehicle with no compromises,” said Jana Hartline, environmental communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA. “From a driver perspective, a customer perspective, you have essentially the same experience you’d have with an internal combustion engine, but with zero emissions.”
But the technology still has pitfalls — and vocal detractors.
Hydrogen stations are extremely expensive to build, with estimates ranging from $1.5 million to $2 million or more. And they need a source of hydrogen. It has to be piped in, trucked in, or generated on site by re-forming it from natural gas. Creating a network of electric-car charging stations, which tap into the local power grid, would be far simpler.
Can’t fuel up at home
Plus, drivers of fuel cell cars won’t have the option of fueling up at home, at least not for a while. Companies such as Honda have been experimenting with home-based systems to re-form hydrogen from natural gas, but many experts don’t expect them to reach the marketplace for years.
To critics, those drawbacks make fuel cell cars a waste of time. At a recent event in Germany, Tesla’s seldom-shy CEO Elon Musk referred to fuel cell vehicles as “bull-” and “rubbish.”
“There’s no way for it to be a workable technology,” he said. He also questioned the cars’ safety, noting that hydrogen can be explosively dangerous.
“It’s suitable for the upper stage of rockets but not for cars,” said Musk, who also heads the SpaceX rocket company.
Fuel cell cars and electric vehicles share many of the same components. But they use very different means of storing and generating energy.
Both types of vehicles employ electric motors to turn their wheels, rather than the internal combustion engine found in gas-burning cars. In plug-in cars, the electricity comes from a large, rechargeable battery pack.
As their name indicates, fuel cell vehicles get their electricity from a fuel cell, which uses an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to generate current. The only by-products are heat and water vapor.
Although the technology sounds exotic, a fuel cell car operates much like the gas-burning variety. And therein lies its appeal. The car can travel just as many miles between pit stops. And refueling in public doesn’t take an hour or more, as it typically does for electrics.
“You can refuel in three to five minutes and be on your way,” said Daniel Dedrick, hydrogen and fuel cell technologies program manager at Sandia National Laboratories. “It’s very consumer-focused.”
9 stations in California
But deployment of the cars depends on having those fueling stations present. The California Fuel Cell Partnership, a collaboration among automakers and several state agencies, currently lists nine stations open to the public, one in Emeryville and the rest in Southern California. Another 12 are expected to open by early 2014, according to the partnership.
Not coincidentally, Hyundai will first offer its Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle in Los Angeles and Orange counties. Drivers will only be able to lease the car, not buy it, with the lease term running three years. But as part of the $499 monthly price, the Korean automaker will cover all fueling costs.
Fueling stations are relatively easy to site in areas that have oil refineries nearby. Refinery operations use hydrogen, ensuring a local supply. Hyundai hopes to be able to market the Tucson in the Bay Area, which has five refineries, in the near future.
“We intend to expand to other markets as soon as feasible, and it really just depends on sufficient infrastructure,” said Derek Joyce, manager of product public relations for Hyundai. “It has to work for your daily life.”
As for safety, the automakers say concerns are overblown. Toyota, which showed off a fuel cell sedan at last month’s Tokyo Motor Show, will use the same kind of carbon fiber found in airplanes for its hydrogen tanks, said Craig Scott, manager of advanced vehicle technologies for the company. Tearing or puncturing it, he said, would be difficult, even in an accident.
“You’d need to have a pretty serious force,” Scott said. “You’re talking about a 50-caliber bullet. It’s not a force you’re going to come into contact with when you’re driving a car.”
If the tank does rupture, the pressurized hydrogen would rapidly escape into the open. It would then dissipate, unless some ignition source caused it to catch fire. Gasoline-powered cars face a similar danger, Scott noted.
“It’s just a comfort factor,” he said. “People are used to driving gasoline cars, so they don’t even think about it.”
Given the current lack of stations, no one expects fuel cell cars to become a major presence on the roads this decade, even if consumers warm to the technology. Roland Hwang, director of the transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said electric vehicles will continue to outsell fuel cell cars for years to come. About 150,000 electric cars are now on U.S. roads, with 50,000 in California, he said.
“Even in a very successful fuel cell market, it’s going to be 10 years before they hit those numbers,” Hwang said.
In the meantime, he’s pleased to see the two technologies vie for attention and sales.
“If they have to compete in a marketplace for zero-emission vehicles, (the companies) will have to step up to the plate and say, ‘We have a better technology, a better product,’ ” Hwang said. “I think they’re good for each other.”
— Reach David R. Baker at email@example.com