c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

BERKELEY, Calif. — Like thick-rim glasses, Doc Martens and so many other things that fell out of favor only to spring back to popularity years later, fuel-cell cars have resurfaced.

In Tokyo on Wednesday, Toyota was the first automaker in the new season of international auto shows to reveal its fresh take on this headline-grabbing technology, quickly followed by Honda and Hyundai in Los Angeles. All three automakers unveiled design studies intended to signal that fuel-cell vehicles, which produce zero tailpipe pollutants, are ever so close to production. Each concept vehicle demonstrated progress in the efficiency and packaging of their fuel-cell systems, which generate electricity onboard by combining hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water vapor.

What these automakers failed to deliver in terms of specifics they offset with lofty promises of a real and rapidly approaching hydrogen-based future.

Before you file this news with reports of the imminent arrival of flying cars, consider this: For the past four months, I have been living with fuel-cell technology, logging more than 2,500 miles at the wheel of a Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv test bed. And I took two short test drives of a sedan that the company said would be ready for volume production in about 24 months.

The all-electric Toyota technowonder that visited my driveway was based on a 2008 Highlander midsize crossover. It offered nearly 300 miles of driving range and five-minute fill-ups — a combination that no battery-electric car offers. I drove for days without tailpipe emissions and without depleting the tank. Multiple round-trip journeys from my East Bay home to San Jose or Sacramento were no problem.

Those trips are a challenge for the Nissan Leaf EV that I usually drive, which offers 80 miles of real-world range and charging times measured in hours.

“Toyota made a decision — the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future,” John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman, said. “That’s the direction we’re going, big time.”

Toyota is not alone. Four other carmakers — General Motors, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz — are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years. They must satisfy California’s zero emission laws, essentially requiring that by 2025 about 15 percent of new cars refuel by plugging into the grid or filling up with hydrogen.

For me, the transition from an EV to a fuel-cell car meant trading one refueling limitation for another. My Leaf offers less than a third of the range of the fuel-cell Highlander but replenishing it at home is as easy and accessible as charging a cellphone. When the tanks in the Highlander were nearing empty, I needed to make a 15-minute drive to the only accessible hydrogen station in Northern California, 6 miles away in Emeryville.

My first visits to the station, on the block where Pixar makes movies, were a scene you’d expect from one of the studio’s hapless characters. Even after training, my first tries ended with the heavy connector being ejected and falling to the pavement. That was user error; soon enough, I figured out the problem, and topping up with hydrogen gas became routine.

A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of hydrogen contains nearly the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. To top up, I added about 4 to 5 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen into tanks at a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch. The Highlander traveled about 55 miles on a kilogram. In Emeryville, I paid $12 to $13 a kilogram.

Measured against a baseline of a 2008 Highlander Hybrid, which carried an EPA rating of 27 mpg in the city and 25 on the highway, that’s roughly equivalent to paying $6 for a gallon of gasoline. According to Toyota, full-scale production of hydrogen is projected to drop the cost below the current price of gasoline, but for now EVs that charge from the grid and store the energy in a lithium-ion battery pack represent a cost-per-mile expense that’s commonly at least one-third lower.

Some aspects of the 2008 fuel-cell Highlander are by now outdated, so Toyota gave me two turns, once in May and again in September, in a test vehicle that it says is more representative of the sedan it will offer in 2015. This mule, which had its fuel-cell powertrain installed in the body of a Lexus HS250h — a hybrid model that has been discontinued — used zip ties and gaffer’s tape to hold together prototype parts and diagnostic equipment. But it gave a sportier drive than the Highlander. The production car will carry a Toyota badge.

All electric cars, whether drawing their energy from batteries or fuel cells, offer impressive low-speed response and near-silent operation. An unexpected exception in a fuel-cell car is the hiss of an air compressor, which pumps oxygen from the atmosphere to the fuel cell.

The main challenge facing Toyota engineers, however, is the vehicle’s price.

“The effort to bring this car to market is about lowering the cost, while providing satisfactory performance,” said Matt McClory, principal engineer of fuel-cell vehicle development for Toyota in the United States, as we did a test drive around Torrance, Calif. “Bringing the costs down was the biggest bogey.”

Toyota executives say they believe a target price around $50,000 is needed to make the cars attractive. That might require the company to price the cars below cost until production reaches a profitable level.

As part of the effort to reduce costs in the 2015 car, Toyota engineers are using a motor and power electronics borrowed from the company’s hybrids. The cost of the fuel-cell unit, known as the stack, was cut by reducing the amount of platinum catalyst it needed — and it was made smaller to fit it under the front seats. The number of tanks was reduced to two in the coming sedan model, from four in the converted Highlander.


The drives in the sedan mule did not alter my view of Toyota’s reputation for emphasizing familiarity over driving excitement. It raised the question of whether such a sedate vehicle, limited to sparse and expensive fueling options, would justify its hefty price.

Marketing will be tricky; it may be necessary to address the safety concerns of consumers. The hydrogen is stored in very durable tanks, and in the extremely unlikely event of a puncture, the gas quickly dissipates into the air, as opposed to liquid fuel that can pool on roadways.


By the time Toyota sells its first fuel-cell sedan, there will be about a half-million plug-in vehicles on the road in the United States — and tens of thousands of EV charging stations. At the same time, it’s uncertain how many hydrogen stations will be online in California by the end of 2015, even with a new source of infrastructure financing. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 8. It includes $20 million a year for up to 10 years, with the goal of building about 100 new stations over the coming decade.

The economics are questionable. Each station costs from $1 million to $3 million, depending on whether hydrogen is produced on the site. The hydrogen used in transportation mostly comes from steam reformation of natural gas. Outside Southern California, which has underground pipes, hydrogen is trucked in liquid form to stations.

Modeling by the University of California, Irvine, speculates that 68 stations across California would put a refueling location, on average, a six-minute drive from the most likely buyers of a fuel-cell car — and that stations would be profitable in the private sector within a year or two of coming online.


Fuel-cell cars have been promised before. In October 2004, Arnold Schwarzenegger, then California’s governor, stepped out of a hydrogen Hummer and declared that by 2010 the state would build a Hydrogen Highway, with 150 to 200 fueling stations, at 20-mile intervals along major highways. Today, the Energy Department lists 10 hydrogen stations available to the public in the entire United States: one in Columbia, S.C., eight in Southern California and the one in Emeryville that I’ve been using. Not all stations are fully accessible or compatible with all fuel-cell cars.


“I was not in favor of building a highway of hydrogen stations,” Steven Chu, the energy secretary in President Barack Obama’s first term, said in a telephone interview.

Recognizing the challenges with hydrogen infrastructure, he said that he slashed research funding for fuel cells in his first year to $80 million, from nearly $300 million, but later adjusted it to $100 million.

“One keeps poking at it,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is knowledgeable enough to say this technology for the next 10 years will not work.”

With developments like more efficient fuel-cell stacks, higher pressure in tanks, greater range and lower cost compared with a decade ago, fuel-cell cars are getting a second look.

Chu summed it up this way: “I think automakers are saying, ‘Look, hydrogen could be a long shot. But we’re going to put a little bet on it, and we’ll see.’”