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China hasn’t abandoned hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. And they are everywhere in the U.S.–if you live in Southern California and look really hard, that is.

August 17, 2010

Seems there is more fuel cell vehicle action among automakers than I realized, in the U.S. and even in China (I sort of bashed China for dropping fuel cell research like a hot potato in favor of BEVs in my July 20 blog).

According to Michael Wang, manager of the systems assessment section of the Center for Transportation Research at the Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, China is still putting money into fuel cell research. Among the research activities, Tongji University, in Shanghai, is even holding an international fuel cell forum this year.

There is a lot of activity in fuel cell research in the United States too, which I didn’t know about. Okay, the info is out there. But it’s generally only talked about in circles where people understand all of California’s zero emission vehicle program (which I may have also been a bit hasty to commit to the dustbin of history), or super-geek alternative fuel vehicle circles (I may catch hell for that. But hey, it’s my blog.).

Indeed, the California Fuel Cell Partnership estimates there will be 54,300 fuel cell passenger vehicles (including public transport) on the road by 2018. Huh?

To understand why that might be true, I spent part of last Thursday at the University of Irvine with Tim Brown, technology manager in the sustainable transportation department in the Uni’s advance power and energy program.  The National Fuel Cell Research Center operates under the APEP’s umbrella.  

The National Fuel Cell Research Center at UC Irvine is home to a fleet of fuel cell vehicles. The University has its own refueling station.

Brown, who is one of the chief super-geeks, sees consumers driving fuel cell vehicles in the U.S. the near future.

“In 2015 you should be able to walk into a dealership and buy a fuel cell vehicle,” says Brown


 Mercedes, General Motors, Honda, and Toyota have the most serious fuel-cell development programs, he says. According to Brown, in California, Mercedes has 100 vehicles on the road, GM has 119, Honda says it will have 200 eventually, and Toyota currently has more than 100.   All are members of the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

“They see this as a marketable car, and acceptable to consumers,” he says.

Brown is like a proud parent with his fleet of aging Toyota RAV4 FCVs.

Toyota has pledged to bring the cost of a fuel cell vehicle below $50,000 by 2015, plus make the segment profitable, says Brown.  Other automakers also have produced at least one fuel cell vehicle.

(okay, this is overkill, but here’s even more info on automakers’ fuel cell plans. P 4 )

Brown, who has a PhD in Mech E from UCIrvine, is a gearhead, albeit a brainy one. He has an M.A. in automotive engineering from the University of Michigan at Dearborn, and worked at General Motors in the structural test lab in Warren, MI and the GM proving grounds in Milford, MI.

Now, managing a filling station is one of his jobs. Okay, it’s not exactly a filling station. Brown manages UCI’s hydrogen refueling station, “arguably the most heavily used public hydrogen station in the world” according to Brown’s CV.  (Could be a little CV padding, though. By Brown’s admission, Germany and Japan have much larger hydrogen fleets, though also more refueling stations…).

Brown manages UC Irvine's hydrogen refueling station, which his CV calls “arguably the most heavily used public hydrogen station in the world.”

He also manages a fleet of 17 Toyota RAV-4 fuel cell vehicles. I drove one to lunch at Wahoo Fish Taco (not relevant to this blog). I didn’t check out its zero-to-sixty abilities (which wouldn’t have meant much to me anyway as I’m not really a gearhead). But to me the FCV drove just like any other car, except for the eerie lack of engine noise.

The problem with commercialization of fuel cell vehicles, says Brown, is not technology. The technology is mature, he says. The main problem is the cost of a fuel cell vehicle, which runs in the hundreds of thousands. All the automakers agree it can be reduced by 10 times by ramping up the scale of production, he says.

 So why aren’t GM, Honda, Toyota, and Mercedes turning out growing numbers of FCVs? There aren’t enough refueling stations, among other hurdles. Why aren’t there enough refueling stations? There aren’t enough fuel cell vehicles on the road to warrant the investment. Sound like a Catch 22?

To be sure, not all agree that cost is the main reason there aren’t lots of fuel cell vehicles on the road today. Tom Gage, president of AC Propulsion Advanced Vehicle Technologies in San Dimas, CA,  is one critic. He argues that the reason hydrogen fuel cell vehicle development hasn’t been more vigorously pursued is that hydrogen can only be produced by separating it from natural gas or water. That process is so energy-intensive it mitigates any potential benefits, he says. “They can’t solve the thermodynamic problem,” says Gage, also a mechanical engineer. Of course, AC Propulsion makes electric vehicle drive trains, so he is invested in a competing alt fuel technology.  

I’ll let those two Mech E’s duke that one out.

Which brings me to my re-consideration of California’s zero emission vehicle program.  I wrote about it for Automotive News, looking at how it has created a market for the credits among automakers.

While reporting that story, I became convinced that the ZEV program–though driven by a noble idea, reducing green house gas emissions (that is the rationale now, at inception it was to clean up the air)–was a failure. It is mind-numbingly complex. Even the tutorial  is nigh impossible to follow.  The program is thus very difficult to implement.

However, the ZEV program may have achieved one of its goals. Brown credits the program with jump-starting fuel cell vehicle development in California. (Gage credits it with killing GM’s electric vehicle program, however. When GM no longer had a corner on the market, it wasn’t worth producing, he said.)

The California Air Resources Board’s Elise Keddie says: “The program was initially seen as a technology driving force.”

Keddie, who is manager of the Zero Emission Vehicle Implementation Section at CARB,  told me, “We wanted the automakers to take longer strides, to look over the horizon.”

But without a good refueling structure, that horizon still seems a bit distant.    Let’s look at Honda’s fuel cell program as an example. Ed Kjaer at SoCal Edison called Honda’s FCX Clarity “the best fuel cell packaging technology on the planet.”  But only about 20 of the vehicles are on the road. “We are actively looking for more leases,” says Jessica Fini, the environment and safety specialist flack at American Honda Motor Co. But, only people who live close to a refueling station are even considered for the program, says Jon Spallino, who just received his FCX Clarity. 

This is Spallino’s second go-around. He leased the original FCX, introduced in 2002, as well.  (I live close to both the Santa Monica and the Torrance stations, and so will get a FCX Clarity to try out for a few days in October!)

Says Spallino: “If you get a Clarity. You have to think about where you get fuel. As someone who drove one for three years, I had to sometimes plan appointments around getting fuel.”

Driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has gotten easier for Spallino because the new Clarity has a greater range, and a refueling station is being built in Torrance, CA, close to his home.   But there are still only a handful of public refueling stations in California, even fewer in other states.

For fuel cell fans, the good news is that we should be getting a few more hydrogen refueling stations in the next year or so. Eight new public stations, funded mostly through California’s Hydrogen Highway program, should be up and running by 2011.

California just allocated an additional $22 million to build refueling stations. The political wrangling over location has now begun, with different automakers making pitches.  

The California Fuel Cell Partnership has its recommendation. UCIrvine is doing its own study, as well, of the best locations for the stations, says Brown.  Now there is “renewed interest” from the California Fuel Cell Partnership in working with UCIrvine on determining locations, he says.

Says Brown: “The only way we can reach our environmental and security goals without the consumer paying a price in range anxiety and charging time is with fuel cell technology.”

Well, Tom Gage wouldn’t agree.  I love a good scrum, even one over technology. Have at it!

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter permalink
    August 18, 2010 2:38 am

    Brilliantly written, and informative as always. Still can’t beat a bike though. 😉

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