Los Angeles has become the epicenter for hydrogen cars, and few other cities will be able to catch up with it. Last month, I had a chance to attend the world’s first summit of fuel cell car owners in Newport Beach, CA. It brought together nearly 20 owners of the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell to discuss the future of H2 driving. These people are not your ordinary automobile owners. They are passion about the new technology, and want nothing more than for more people to get behind the wheel of a fuel cell vehicle. The growing number of owners, and plans for more H2 cars to be on the road in 2012 shows that the hydrogen economy is no longer a thing of the future but a reality now. Fuel cell cars could potentially leapfrog plug-in electric cars as the most sustainable option, and usher in a decentralized solution for transportation and climate change. Plus, when you can fill up your tank in less than 10 minutes and then drive more than two hundred miles for under $20.00, what’s not to love?
Oh, the land of Hollywood and Movie Stars. It is not thought of as the center of the green revolution. But for hydrogen cars, it is. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out H2 cars are a more sustainable, cheaper option than electric cars while containing more punch per unit than any other fuel available (including fossil fuels). These facts have jumpstarted a brave new world for the next generation of automobiles.
Tinsel Town has a fledgling infrastructure that could disconnect society from oil and the electric grid with three hydrogen stations in Culver City, Torrance and Irvine. It also has the highest concentration of hydrogen cars made by Mercedes, Toyota, Honda and GM. It is rumored that GM has many H2 on the road while Toyota has more than a 100 vehicles being used today. These cars are not for the general public, and are used as test cases. However, Mercedes is offering the technology to the general public with a limited production. In 2011, the automaker decided to see if people would pay for the F-Cell, and if the cars could withstand the normal (and abnormal) treatment a driving-centric culture of Southern California demands? Spoiler Alert: the answer is yes and yes.
The F-Cell Summit event was held at a quiet restaurant in Orange County. It was a foggy, cool October afternoon as a cold front moved in from the Pacific Ocean. Before lunch, I had a chance to talk to a few of the owners, and found that they were as diverse as California itself. Some didn’t really care about environmental issues, but geeked out about the mechanics. Others were Prius converts – having traded in their Toyota for the Mercedes and never looked back. They came from backgrounds such as business owners, graphic designers, construction managers and IT experts. No matter the reason for owning the car, they all were convinced hydrogen will be the fuel to transform the United States.
I sat at a table with Sasha Simon, the leading mastermind behind hydrogen cars for Mercedes. He talks about these unique cars as if he is trying to save souls. He had hatched the plan to bring the world F-Cells several years back which you he guided the group through during a presentation. The odyssey started when he was instructed by Mercedes to make the drive-train and H2 system fit on the smallest car they made. This was no easy task. Less than 5 years ago the equipment needed was gigantic and only suitable for buses or bigger. Now, with the advancement of better membranes, a fuel cell can be fashioned onto the body of a B-Class (a car class no bigger than a Volkswagen Beetle). Once this happened, Simon had the chance to start getting people to actually use them.
I drove the F-Cell while in LA for my book tour. It felt like piloting a piece of the future. For a place that is fairly indifferent to seeing unique vehicles, I got admiring and envious stares from hybrid owners. The F-Cell feels like you’re driving a cat with an internal combustible engine, but without the noise, pollution or lack of efficiency. The F-Cell is more than 60% efficient and holds the equivalent of three gallons of petroleum. But where three gallons of gasoline would only get you (at best) 120 to 150 miles – the F-Cell can take you around 220 before you need to fill up.
When I’ve talked about fuel cells with plug-in advocates, I find that they don’t like them. I don’t exactly know why. It might be that H2 cars fill up faster, have a longer range and perform better than plug-in EVs. In fact, as I’ve traveled around the country I’ve come to find out that the standard electric car is a non-starter for most people. People state that a charging time of 6 to 8 hours is just not practical. I visited the hydrogen station in Torrance and within ten minutes the F-Cell was fueled and ready to go. The gas nozzle looks and functions the same as what you would use at a standard gasoline station. While I was at the station, I had a chance to also get a look at the Toyota and GM hydrogen cars. Standing there, filling up the F-Cell surrounded by other fuel cells made me really understand the true potential of these types of cars.
For the people I met in Newport Beach, the discussion is over. They are converts and strive to become evangelicals like Simons. They want to have bigger decals on their cars, and get them painted brighter colors like orange, lime green or fire-engine red. Why? Because they want everyone to see the hydrogen economy is available for leasing at a car dealer near you. Plus, most of them love the fact that the F-Cell has so much power from the start, and are “a dream to drive”.
The one big problem is that the infrastructure is only fledgling, and not robust. There has to be more hydrogen stations for the cars to multiple in numbers. The original plan was to make fueling stations available along the interstate connecting LA to San Francisco, but that’s not how most people behave in cars. The second strategy was to create clusters of stations within neighborhoods around Southern California – and that’s what’s been happening. However, some of the original stations have closed. Mercedes want to grow drivership to more than 70 people by the summer of 2012. The only want to do that is to have more stations.
I think Southern California will soon have a come-to-Jesus moment, and push ahead with opening new H2 filling stations. As they do, more people will lease F-Cells. As the F-Cell grows in popularity, other car manufacturers will introduce H2 models to the general public, and then stations would likely expand outside of the Los Angeles area. Driving really is believing with this car and believing is the beginning. The hydrogen economy is no longer 10 to 20 years into the future, it is happening right now.
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