Just off Interstate 80, between Silicon Valley, the capital of high tech, and Sacramento, the capital of America's car-culture state, what might be the automotive fuel of the future is getting a test-drive. Here, at the California Fuel Cell Partnership, the world's largest automakers and energy companies, from General Motors to BP, are working on a viable alternative to the environmental and geopolitical quagmire of gasoline-powered cars.
Here you can see million-dollar hydrogen-powered prototype vehicles purr out of garages to be put through their paces. There's Daimler-Chrysler's "necar" (pictured below) and Hyundai's Santa Fe FCEV, with a scene from a tropical forest painted on its side, complete with a giant orange butterfly. And why not: It's an SUV that burns no oil at all.
"We want to prove that the technology could work, and that it could make economic sense," says Joe Irwin, a communications manager for the Partnership. "Our society is very dependent on fossil fuels, and you don't turn that spigot off overnight."
The names and logos of the partners parade across the front of the low-slung office park that fronts the garages: Daimler-Chrysler, Ford Motor Co., GM, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota, and Volkswagen. The world's largest energy companies — BP, ChevronTexaco, ExxonMobil, and Royal Dutch/Shell — are also in the game, researching how to deliver hydrogen as a gas to drivers at the pump.
Many of the test vehicles here are SUVs, which, explains Eugene Jang, senior engineer for Hyundai, is because of the fact that they're notorious for being gas-guzzlers. Using the SUV chassis also gives automakers room for the hydrogen fuel: Storing enough fuel on board is a design challenge for these vehicles. The fuel cell inside the car functions like a mini - power plant, mixing hydrogen and air to produce electricity to power the vehicle, with only water as a by-product.
Since 1990, the state of California has given automakers a regulatory push toward "zero emissions" vehicles, but the much-hyped electric-car revolution never got off the ground. Automakers say that that's because battery-recharge times of six to eight hours and limited range of about 80 miles on any one charge made the vehicles a hard sell.
The crass commercial question: How do you create hydrogen-powered cars that perform to drivers' expectations? And exactly how do you solve the problem of bringing hydrogen to the pump? To find the answers, the Partnership already has 20 vehicles, like the FCV Xterra, on California roads, and it plans to introduce 40 more by year's end. Last December, Toyota and Honda put three zero-emission, hydrogen-powered vehicles into the hands of consumers at the University of California at Irvine and Davis and in the city of Los Angeles. It could be an experiment, or it could be the beginning of the drive to end dependence on foreign oil.
Visit the California Fuel Cell Partnership on the Web (www.fuelcellpartnership.org).
A version of this article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.