Monday, February 27, 2017
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Is This My Next Car?
Walter Salm, Editor

Fuel cells. I talk about them so much that my coworkers are getting a little sick of the subject. But I have a long history with these remarkable power sources. The very first fuel cell article I ever wrote appeared in Popular Electronics magazine in 1965. There were several publicity photos showing a fuel-cell-powered golf cart driven by a blonde model, a forklift, and a farm tractor, all from Allis Chalmers. At the time, the only practical use for fuel cells was onboard NASA's Gemini and Apollo space vehicles, because in this case, the high cost of the emerging technology was no deterrent. The Apollo took fuel cells on its voyage to the moon and back and carried large fuel tanks filled with hydrogen and oxygen. My dream at the time was to live long enough to someday drive a production model fuel-cell powered automobile that was within reach of mainstream America.

That finally happened a short time ago, when my neighbor Ben and I drove 95 miles to West Sacramento to the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CAFCP), ironically right across the road from IKEA, one of my wife's very favorite places to shop — a store where I have parted with a lot of money. Once there, we met briefly with Chris White, CAFCP's PR director, who provided updates on the infrastructure situation. See the story on page 1.

Seated behind the wheel of the Toyota Mirai, I was faced with a slick, skinny instrument panel, tucked deep under a dashboard overhang to eliminate reflections, glare, etc. The speedometer is digital, and the entire dashboard takes a little getting used to. This is the first production fuel-cell powered vehicle in an affordable price range — about $57,000. While this may not sound very affordable, there are incentives that bring the cost down, and besides, there are plenty of consumers out there who gladly shell out that much money or more for an all-electric car or a luxury car or a full-size pickup truck. And BTW, this vehicle is currently only available on a lease.

Getting to drive this technological marvel was one of the perks of being an editor/writer for a major trade publication. I was expecting an effortless fast-accelerating electric car, and the Mirai did not disappoint. But why did it take so long to get here? After all, the fuel cell has been around since 1839. First of all, the manufacturing technology was not in place during the 19th Century. Secondly, there was no discernible market for this technology. And of course, there was no hydrogen refueling infrastructure in place. There still isn't, but that situation is changing.

That infrastructure is now the key to the entire future success of the fuel cell program. There are currently only 17 retail hydrogen fueling stations operating in California, but the goal at CAFCP is to have 50 such stations operating by the end of 2016. That's still not very many; California is an awfully big state. Another target is to eventually have all retail hydrogen extracted by using renewable sources — solar and wind power — at self-contained refueling stations. As it stands now, the hydrogen is delivered by truck, much the same way that gasoline is distributed.

I seriously doubt that I will ever own such a car, both for financial reasons and the fact that the nearest hydrogen fueling station is 95 miles from where I live in Chico. Add to that the fact that our 2006 Honda CR-V still reliably plugs along showing no signs of needing replacement for at least another 200,000 miles. When we bought that vehicle 10 years ago, we decided that it would probably be the last new car we would ever buy, and nothing has happened to change that opinion, although those self-driving autonomous cars look awfully tempting. That's another emerging technology that's incredibly exciting. The car of the future will combine autonomous operation with fuel cell power. Will I live long enough to see that happen? Probably, at least I hope so.  

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