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Hydrogen fuel-cell cars

WHY THEY’RE USEFUL:

An environmentalist’s dream, they emit only water

WHO’S WORKING ON THEM:

Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, Mercedes and GM, for now

WHEN WILL THEY HIT THE ROAD?

2015

At last, the future is now. Hydrogen fuel cell-powered automobiles, a form of transportation that was often said to be perpetually five years away, are finally hitting showrooms next year, with Toyota, Honda and Hyundai rolling out models.

It’s been a long time coming, says Scott Samuelsen, director of the National Fuel Cell Research Center at the University of California, Irvine.

“The auto companies have been evaluating different models since 2002,” he said. Toyota and Honda have been testing cars in the United States, and other manufacturers, including Hyundai, GM and Mercedes, have been working on the technology.

Hydrogen fuel cells offer some key benefits over competing technologies such as all-electric lithium-ion batteries and the traditional internal-combustion engine.

Unlike lithium-ion batteries, found in such vehicles as the Tesla Model S and Nissan Leaf, hydrogen fuel cells are capable of long-range driving – 400 miles, according to Samuelsen – and can be recharged in a matter of minutes. And unlike gasoline or diesel engines, fuel cells are environmentally friendly, with water their only byproduct.

But fuel cells have other challenges: mainly a lack of hydrogen filling stations. California currently has just 25 stations, with a goal of 68 by 2016. That may be enough to allow people to drive their cars between Los Angeles and San Francisco but won’t be much help if they’re going out of state.

There are also limitations that affect batteries, such as poor performance in cold climates. And the batteries’ sheer bulk makes for more limited trunk space than their gasoline-fueled brethren.

But those issues are being overcome, say automakers.

“All the performance metrics and all the driving dynamics are very similar to a gasoline car. There’s no compromise for the customer,” said Craig Scott, advance technology vehicle national manager for Toyota. The Japanese-based automaker is releasing the Toyota FCV in 2015.

And Steve Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel-cell vehicle marketing, believes the technology is only getting better. Honda’s FCX Clarity has been on the market since 2008, though only for lease in America. Honda’s new vehicle, yet unnamed, is due sometime in 2015.

“(The new car) has a 60% improvement in energy density coming from the fuel cell stack, with a 33% size reduction” compared with the FCX Clarity, Ellis said. “It really demonstrates how significant the advances are.”

The word “hydrogen” conjures frightening images of exploding blimps. But industry experts say the fuel cells are rugged and thoroughly tested. Samuelsen was even broadsided in a hydrogen vehicle, “and I’m still talking to you,” he said.

Samuelsen and Ellis believe that fuel cell cars will expand, not cannibalize, the current market for hybrids. After all, conservation trends suggest we’ll all be relying more on alternative fuels in the future.

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