Bill Holloway loves showing off the sporty metallic sedan he uses to brave a150-mile commute to his job or while running errands around town. The 62-year-old resident of Alameda, California, will even hand over his keys — as he did with me — to individuals curious about the car and how it handles on neighborhood roads and busy highways. But what really makes his Mercedes a conversation starter is the fuel it uses: compressed hydrogen gas that gets converted into electricity to power the car’s electric motor and travel roughly 200 miles per fill-up, with water vapor as the only tailpipe emission.
When I took his hydrogen fuel cell vehicle for a spin, I had to agree that it was fun to drive and had that Ninja-quiet, electric car feel to it, much like a Toyota Prius. The comparison is apt, considering that in 2015, Toyota will release a new hydrogen car that can travel roughly 300 miles per fill-up, a range that is on par with conventional gasoline-powered cars. In spring 2014, Hyundai will release the Tucson Fuel Cell, an SUV that runs on hydrogen, for Southern California motorists willing to put down $2999 and pay $499 a month for a three-year lease, fuel and maintenance included.
If the commercial roll-out of new hydrogen cars is successful in California, the nation’s largest car market, the cars may then expand to other markets where concerns about CO2 emissions and climate change resonate among voters and consumers. In October 2013, for example, seven other states joined California on an ambitious initiative to place more than three million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Even the federal government is showing renewed interest in fuel cell technology and the infrastructure the cars desperately need to take off. In May 2013, the Department of Energy launched H2USA, a public-private partnership that includes the American Gas Association, automakers and other industries working together to make the production and delivery of hydrogen fuel cheaper and more efficient.
But as Holloway told me, “If someone wants a fuel cell car, I would give them a rousing thumbs up for their decision as long as they can find somewhere to fill it.” Currently, there is only one public hydrogen refueling station in Northern California where he can fill up his Mercedes B-Class F-Cell, which he leases from Mercedes for $950 a month, hydrogen included. At the time of our filming, only a handful of other drivers were leasing a Mercedes F-Cell in the San Francisco Bay Area, and only one other auto maker — Honda — was also leasing its fuel cell sedan, the FCX Clarity, to motorists based in Southern California.
With only 300 to 400 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the nation’s roads, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the lack of hydrogen refueling stations has been a major stumbling block. A decade after former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s failed plan to build hundreds of hydrogen refueling stations up and down the state, the California Fuel Cell Partnership is today promoting a “road map” to prioritize the construction of 68 new hydrogen refueling stations in five geographic regions, such as Silicon Valley and Santa Monica/West L.A.
Even with 19 new hydrogen refueling stations already in development, which are being built with the help of public dollars, thanks to recent legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown, it’s far from certain that drivers will enthusiastically get behind the wheel of hydrogen cars that already have some catching up to do with Nissan Leafs, Chevy Volts, and other zero-emission vehicles.
But in a state where the Toyota Prius was the best-selling car in 2012 and 2013, hydrogen cars may still have a chance among drivers concerned about the environment and tech-savvy motorists like Bill Holloway, who leased his fuel cell car because it appealed to his inner geek.
Back at his house, with his car parked in his driveway, Holloway lifted the hood to reveal a pretty conventional-looking array of car parts, such as a battery and an air compressor. “You open the hood and it’s a normal car,” he said. “You put the key in, you put it in drive, and away you go.”
Just don’t make a road trip out of it or you may hit a dead end trying to find a place to fill up – for now, at least.
Additional footage and imagery used in “Highway to Hydrogen” QUEST video courtesy of: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.; California Fuel Cell Partnership; Hyundai Motor America; KQED Newsroom; Lun So; Marc Marshall, Schatz Energy Research Center, Humboldt State University; Mercedes-Benz USA; Toyota Motor Corporation; University of California- Davis News Service