I’ve Driven the Future…Again

2011 Mercedes-Benz F-CELL.

I first drove a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle about ten years ago. It was a Honda that had made a zig-zag journey through California and ended up in Griffith Park at the culmination of a media tour promoting the “future” of clean air motoring.

The plug-in electric car was temporarily dead then, and fuel cells offered promise in the fact that they turned compressed hydrogen into electricity on-board. In effect, a fuel cell car is an electric car, without having to recharge batteries for several hours after depletion. Once there are hydrogen stations all over the place, refueling will be as quick as it takes to fill a regular car with gasoline.

In that particular Honda FCX, the fuel cell was about the size of a retail store’s safe, and range was less than 100 miles. I couldn’t drive the car solo, as an engineer had to ride in the passenger seat (of the two-seater) with a laptop computer hooked up to the various systems.

Over the years, I got to sample other hydrogen fuel cell prototypes from various manufacturers, each one a bit more improved. The fuel cells themselves got smaller, driving range increased, and the cars became more “normal” in layout and driving experience.

A couple of years ago, Honda began leasing their FCX Clarity, a sedan about the size of an Accord with excellent drivability and range. So far, only a couple of dozen have been delivered, as there’s an extensive vetting process to get one. It’s also not cheap, at $600 a month.

Now, the selection of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles available to the public has doubled. Instead of one hard-to-get, expensive example… there are two. As of this year, “qualified” applicants can lease a very slick Mercedes-Benz F-Cell that drives fantastically and has a range of up to 240 miles.

The problem is, most people reading this can’t get one, even if you think it’s worth $849 a month on a two year lease. Essentially, you’re helping further Mercedes-Benz’s development of fuel cells, but you have to live near a hydrogen fueling station. There are none in the San Fernando Valley, save for restricted municipal facilities.

The auto and energy industries are promising more infrastructures in the form of additional public hydrogen stations, but they’re slow in coming. Compressed hydrogen either has to be made on-site through an elaborate process involving electricity, natural gas and water, or carried in via large trucks in tanks.

If there happens to be an industrial hydrogen pipeline running underground, that makes it much easier. That scenario came to fruition last week in Torrance, where a Shell hydrogen station opened up on 190th Street. There’s a hydrogen pipeline underground because there are oil refineries nearby, which both use and produce gaseous hydrogen.

So there will be more hydrogen stations — eventually. The oil companies like Shell are somewhat interested in building them, but they’d like to be assured that enough vehicles will be scooting around. Mercedes-Benz plans to eventually have about 75 F-Cells on the road here within a couple of years, and Honda is still slowly building the Clarity. There are also various cars being tested by governments and institutions, but altogether we’re only talking about a hundred or so cars.

As for the little Mercedes-Benz fuel cell, there’s really a lot to like. It’s comfortable, fairly quick, and produces no emissions other than a little water vapor. The problem is that the nearest place to fill it up is in Culver City, and for unexplained reasons that one happened to be “down” while I had the car. That left the new Torrance location as the closest station, a drive of about 35 miles each way.

When I drove that Honda fuel cell in Griffith Park ten years ago, I was told viable fuel cell vehicles were “five to ten years away.” Well, okay, they did arrive within ten years. Sort of. Maybe in another ten years we’ll see lots of them around. Maybe.

I’ll see you down the road.

Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz.

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