Honda unveiled its new FCEV hydrogen fuel-cell concept car at the 2013 L.A. Auto Show. (Susan Valot/KQED)
Honda unveiled its new FCEV hydrogen fuel-cell concept car at the 2013 L.A. Auto Show. (Susan Valot/KQED)

By Susan Valot

Car buffs gathered around futuristic concept cars at the L.A. Auto Show, running through Dec. 1 at the convention center, pointing out details and taking pictures. Others slid into shiny new models to check out the latest features.

For the last few years, hybrids and plug-ins have been the stars here. This year, the buzzwords are “hydrogen fuel cell.”

Toward the side of the Hyundai display was a white Tucson compact crossover SUV, unassuming and as quiet as the engine that’s in it: an electric engine run by hydrogen.

Unlike a traditional plug-ins, this one charges in less than 10 minutes and travels up to 300 miles per charge.

A Hyundai representative pointed out its virtues over the loudspeaker, “And the biggest news, Hyundai is the first company here in North America to offer a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle that will be for sale, targeted this spring.”

Nearly a decade ago, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger touted plans for a “hydrogen highway” in California, made up of dozens of hydrogen fueling stations linking the state. But the idea hit potholes and dead ends.

Currently, there are only about 10 public hydrogen stations in California, mostly in the L.A. area.

“The original ‘hydrogen highway’ under the Schwarzenegger era died because it was a joint public-private effort, but they really didn’t coordinate very well with the private companies, ” said John O’Dell, who covers green cars for the auto website “And you had fuel makers, like Shell and Exxon and others, say, ‘Well, why do we want to spend millions of dollars to put in fuel stations that are going to put us out of business some day?’  Plus, the economy collapsed.”

So the hydrogen highway hit the skids. Consumers turned their attention to hybrids.

Then, in September of this year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation to dedicate $20 million a year for the next decade to build hydrogen fueling stations. The funding will build up to 100 stations, placed strategically in urban areas. The money comes from an extension of several existing fees on vehicle registration.

Hyundai North America’s Mike O’Brien said that’s one reason his company decided to roll out the first mass-produced hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the U.S. market.

The Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel-cell engine fits underneath the hood of the vehicle, much like a traditional gasoline-powered engine. (Susan Valot/KQED)
The Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel-cell engine fits underneath the hood of the vehicle, much like a traditional gasoline-powered engine. (Susan Valot/KQED)

“There’s a commitment now from the state of California to build infrastructure. There’s a renewed commitment with the federal government to invest in infrastructure,” O’Brien said. “So we’re seeing a change in terms of government seeding the market to help during what many consider this ‘black hole’ period, where there’s not enough fuel-cell vehicles to support the economics of an individual investor buying a fuel cell station or building one.”

O’Brien said it’s a delicate balance between producing hydrogen fuel-cell cars and creating the hydrogen infrastructure they’ll need, but he’s hopeful.

“If Henry Ford had stood in front of a large crowd of people in 1910 and said, ‘Gee, I don’t think there’s a future for gasoline vehicles because there aren’t that many stations around now,’ …the same facts in 1910 for gasoline exist today for hydrogen,” O’Brien pointed out.

Hyundai will roll out 1,000 hydrogen fuel-cell Tucsons initially, for both the U.S. and European markets. They’ll be built on the same assembly line as the company’s gasoline version of the Tucson.

Toyota and Honda plan to roll out their first U.S. hydrogen models in the next couple of years.  Other carmakers will follow.

“It’s all really about California’s goal of 80 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2050.  And when you just think about the simple technology appearance of it today, there’s no way to get 80 percent reduction with gasoline,” O’Brien said.

However, not every car company is putting its eggs in the hydrogen basket. Samantha Hoyt of Ford said her company will concentrate more on its plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids, for now.

“All those technologies are forthcoming,” Hoyt said, as she sat among Ford’s green offerings at the car show. “It won’t be long, and you will see hydrogen-cell vehicles in the market, but are they affordable to the average consumer?”

Hyundai says it initially plans to offer the vehicles on a $499 a month, 36-month lease with a $2,999 down payment. The payment includes hydrogen fuel, maintenance and service, but does not include a California rebate and federal tax breaks.

Toyota’s offering is rumored to be about $50,000, unless the company opts to subsidize the car to get a better foothold in the market.

Honda Fuel Cell Vehicle Sales and Marketing Manager Steve Ellis said California’s push to create hydrogen fueling stations is key.

“California is really the crucible where all of this is being done and proven out and now, other regions of the U.S. won’t have to repeat those same mistakes,” Ellis said. “The mistakes of the chicken and egg, the mistakes of waiting until an automaker commits to a certain volume before they even start to fund the station.” green car expert John O’Dell said it will be a challenge to create a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure, but he said California does have one thing in its favor: public perception.

“We have now more than 20 years of sort of a subliminal public education because government talks about it in a favorable way, because we’ve had programs and plans,” O’Dell said. “We’re the birthplace, if you will, in this country, of the conventional hybrid.  You know, the Prius is the national bird of Santa Monica. And on and on and on. People are a lot more comfortable with the idea of alternatives to the internal combustion engine.”

But will people be comfortable with hydrogen and be willing to wait for hydrogen fueling stations to be built?  That is something the automakers are willing to test drive in California.

James Bell, head of consumer affairs for General Motors, says hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles should be considered just another part of the expanded offerings from automakers. Just as not everyone will drive a plug-in electric car, not everyone will drive a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle.

“I don’t think any manufacturer sees… it as suddenly one day we’re all going to throw our electric- and gasoline-powered cars away and just go buy a hydrogen,” Bell said.  “It’s going to be a slow [process].”

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