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Fuel cells, sidelined but not forgotten at electric vehicle show

Consumer Reports News: May 16, 2012 03:08 PM

As the spotlight has shifted to battery-powered cars, other promising alternative fuels have been left in the dark. That's especially true for yesterday's transportation stars, fuel-cell vehicles. But that doesn't mean progress has stopped.

California is still planning to get 20,000 fuel-cell vehicles on the road, starting in 2015. Part of the state's zero-emissions vehicle mandate requires oil companies to install 68 hydrogen-refueling stations in five cities and along highways between those cities by 2015. The hydrogen would most likely be produced on site from natural gas, although some would use renewable sources.

So far, a handful of these stations exist: 37 are funded or under construction and institutional backers are trying to raise $65 million to build the rest - from $45 million from the state, $12.5 million from regional air-quality districts, and $7.5 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. A partnership of automakers and California government agencies has set up a hydrogen infrastructure trust fund to manage the money. The requirements to create that infrastructure are triggered once automakers announce plans to collectively sell 20,000 fuel-cell vehicles in the state. Although in its infancy, that process is already under way.

While automakers such as Nissan and Mitsubishi seem to be committing to battery powered plug-in vehicles, Mercedes-Benz has delivered 37 F-cell fuel-cell-powered cars, Honda has leased 23 FCX Claritys in California, and dozens of Toyota and General Motors fuel-cell vehicles are driving around the state, which count towards the mandate. Craig Childers, an engineer at the California Air Resources board who helped write the state's zero emissions vehicle standards, says fuel-cell vehicles amass additional credits (over battery electrics), because of their typically long range and short refueling times.

We caught up with a few F-cell drivers at EVS26, the 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium held recently in Los Angeles. The drivers we spoke with are committed to ending their dependence on oil and each leased an F-cell for two years at $849 a month. (Mercedes has a new, more affordable program for three years at $550 a month with $2,500 down.) At an evening social gathering outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, they called each other by car numbers.

We talked to Harvey Cogen (aka Number 6), a computer consultant from Redondo Beach, Calif. He says he wanted a Chevrolet Volt, but lives in a condominium, and after consulting with his homeowners' board, the town, and various electricians, he could find no way to get a charger installed where he parks. He drove a fuel-cell Chevrolet Equinox as part of General Motors' Project Driveway and was sold. He says with federal, state, and local tax incentives, along with energy and insurance being included, the car will end up costing him just a few hundred dollars. Now he drives his F-cell 40 to 60 miles a day, and he says the biggest concern is what to get after the lease ends.

Here at Consumer Reports, we've driven most of the hydrogen cars on the market at one time or another and found they perform well, are refined, and have reasonable range. The only thing lacking for the vast majority of consumers has been a place to fill them up. Perhaps with the California push for more hydrogen fueling stations, and more cars on the market, Cogen and other fuel-cell vehicle advocates will find refueling stations continue to spread the reach and appeal of these green machines.

See our guide to fuel economy and guide to alternative fuels.

Related:
Electric car drivers left hanging in charger wars
California to boost mandate for electric cars
Purpose-built electric cars trump manufacturer-converted models
Wireless electric-car charging takes center stage
Plugless Power demonstrates cordless electric car recharging
Toyota introduces electric RAV4 SUV, starting at $49,800
Mercedes-Benz B-Class fuel-cell-powered car shows progress
Behind the wheel of the improved Coda electric car
We drive the first Chinese car expected in the U.S., the electric BYD e6
Do electric cars even need special chargers?

Eric Evarts

   

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