Photos by Joanne Tucker
The Mercedes B-Class hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.
“Green” automotive events are ubiquitous these days. Last week, conflicting schedules took me in a different direction than our own Green Fleet Conference, which has become ground zero for the fleet industry to gather on environmental concerns. But I did make it around the corner to Santa Monica’s modest Alt-Car Expo, which is always a good place to catch up on what’s new and green these days and kick the tires of some new product.
Last year, the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt were the hot new toys. In one year, those models have now become the standards everyone else compares themselves to. This year, a start-up EV manufacturer is in production with a series of new vehicles and metrics-busting claims. But first:
Are we still talking about hydrogen to power our cars?
Yes. Hydrogen funding is still recovering from the 2008 market crash and migration to electric vehicles. However, government funding is slowly ramping up again, and we can look to 2015 as a milestone on the hydrogen timeline. The Department of Energy’s goal is for manufacturer partners to sell production hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.
From a pure technology standpoint, hydrogen is a superior way to power cars. Combustion happens as a chemical process, achieving 40 percent efficiency, while an internal combustion engine will only ever achieve 17 to 20 percent efficiency. The main challenges remain in cost of materials, specifically minimizing platinum content — a major barrier — and fueling infrastructure.
Chevy was giving spins in the fuel-cell Equinox, as was Mercedes with its B-Class f-cell and Honda with its FCX Clarity — all in heavy testing. The FCX Clarity is on its own proprietary platform; it’s a pretty slick looking four-door sedan.
Sales of fuel-cell vehicles will be similar to the rollout of EVs, in early adopter cities such as San Francisco and Los Angeles with the fueling infrastructure. There are actually four stations in Southern California that offer a high-pressure hydrogen fill. Fill time from empty is about six minutes. Right now, it costs $16 to fill up on about four kg of hydrogen for 200 miles of range. (Max range on test vehicles today is 200 to 250 miles.) The DOE expects that price to lower to $3 to $4 by 2015.
I often drive by the Shell hydrogen station in Torrance. I feel as though I should drop off an iPad loaded with all five seasons of Mad Men to the lonely station attendant because I never see anyone actually in there. The place sits silently waiting for the revolution to come.