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Electric Cars Are Coming! Hydrogen...Maybe Not So Much

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2009 Honda FCX Clarity, being delivered to 19-year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher

2009 Honda FCX Clarity, being delivered to 19-year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher

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We get asked a lot of questions by friends and colleagues looking to buy cars and trucks, as we noted elsewhere this morning.

But we also get asked a lot about future cars, especially hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. The standard question is either, "When should we expect hydrogen cars?" or, "How can I buy a hydrogen-powered car?"

Usually this follows one of the many deeply uninformed TV segments touting cars of the future. One recent flurry of stories covered Honda's delivery last week of an FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to 19-year-old actress and environmental youth leader Q’orianka Kilcher.

"Since my first car was the [original] Honda FCX, I am proud to say that I have never pumped a gallon of gasoline,” Honda quoted Kilcher saying. “As a young person, I feel it is my responsibility to always try my best to think about the consequences of my actions and choices as a consumer, and the impact they have on our planet."

We applaud Kilcher's intentions. But here's our riposte, and our answer to everyone who asks for perspective on fuel-cell vehicles.

There's an old saying:  Hydrogen is the fuel of the future...and always will be. Frankly, using hydrogen as a vehicle fuel poses two very tough problems.

First, there's no infrastructure at all (e.g. "gas stations") to deliver hydrogen to cars. Consider how tough it's been to make ethanol, or even diesel fuel for non-truckers, available to retail consumers. And those fuels use the same pumps, hoses, and nozzles as gasoline. At high enough pressure to take vehicles a few hundred miles, hydrogen requires new and totally different equipment.

By some estimates, we'd need 12,000 new stations to make hydrogen fuel available to two-thirds of the US population. It took GM two years, and more than a million dollars, to build a single station in Tarrytown, New York. And most localities have no zoning for hydrogen stations--or consider them industrial--so their default response is often "no".

Second, hydrogen in its pure state doesn't just happen. You have to use energy to make it--a lot of energy--by splitting apart more complex molecules.  Depending where that energy comes from, the overall impact on carbon emissions (known as the "wells to wheels" energy balance) may prove worse than burning petroleum fuels.

Many analysts feel that the alt-fuel of the future is much more likely to be electricity. It can be generated in many ways, and all Americans already have access to it at home and at work. That's the start of at least a basic "refueling" network.

It's worth noting that the president's 2010 budget cuts funding for development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles from $169 million to $68 million. By contrast, funding has risen substantially for initiatives on batteries, plug-in hybrids, and cars with large battery packs.

We advise consumers to focus on electric-drive cars from major makers. They will start to show up at dealers late next year, and arrive in meaningful numbers in 2011. They include the 2011 Chevrolet Volt, the Ford Focus EV, and the Nissan EV.

As for Kilcher's car, the 2009 Honda FCX Clarity is the world's only mass-production hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle. It's powered by an electric motor that runs on electricity generated by the fuel cell. Its only tailpipe emission is water.

Most large automakers have pilot programs for fuel cell vehicles. Chevrolet makes more than 100 Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicles available to academics, media, elected officials, and environmental leaders through its "Project Driveway" program. And Ford has 30 Focus fuel-cell vehicles on the road that have collectively racked up more than 1 million miles.

But, says Ford's Jennifer Moore, the company is reallocating resources toward "nearer-term, more mature, higher volume, and more affordable technologies, including hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and battery electric vehicles."

And there you have it. Hybrids: Here now. Electrics: Coming soon. Hydrogen fuel cells: Don't hold your breath.

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

Shell Hydrogen Station in Reykjavik Iceland

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