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CaFCP 2004 "Cruisin' Southern Cal" Road Rally

Focus FCV at OC Market Place

Each year since 2002, the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP) has held an annual fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) road rally to acquaint the public with this new kind of transportation. I reported here on the 2002 California Coast rally from Monterey to Santa Barbara, and the 2003 "Rally Thru the Valley" from Sacramento to Los Angeles, both of which included public test rides at each stop; this year the theme of the event was "Cruisin' Southern Cal" and it ran from Diamond Bar to San Diego from 17 to 19 September 2004, again with the vehicles being available for public test rides along the way. I was out of town when they came through Long Beach near my home, but I caught up with them at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa. Here is the Ford Focus FCV on static display outside one entrance.

Lined up for test rides

It was actually a little difficult to figure out where the test rides were being offered; the Fairgrounds are huge! I spent several hours there, riding in almost all of the vehicles participating in the rally, and I never saw long lines of people waiting their turns, though there was a steady trickle. Too bad; these are probably the most unusual vehicles most people will ever ride in! Here are the DaimlerChrysler F-Cell, the Nissan X-Trail, and the Hyundai Santa Fe. The Hyundai was the first FCV I ever rode in, at the 2002 rally. At the time I noted that it was a bit stripped, with computer ports sticking out of the dash and no sound insulation; it was much more "buttoned up" two years later. I also had noted that this was the first FCV to run at ambient air pressure, not needing a noisy air compressor onboard, and the first to have 5000 PSI hydrogen tanks to carry more fuel for longer range. (By contrast, my van has 3000 PSI compressed natural gas (CNG) tanks, and most modern natural-gas vehicles have 3600 PSI tanks.) Since then, Nissan has also upgraded to these technologies, and the GM HydroGen3 has 10000 PSI fuel storage!

Toyota FCHV

The "FCHV" on this Toyota vehicle (based on the Highlander) stands for "Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle," with the word "hybrid" indicating that the vehicle has a battery pack for a "buffer" between the fuel cell and the electric motor, like a gasoline-electric hybrid vehicle. (I wasn't aware that anybody had built a non-hybrid FCV, with the fuel cell hooked up directly to the electric motor, until I drove the GM HydroGen3 at EVS-20 last year!) Given the runaway success of their gasoline-electric hybrid Prius, it's natural that they would want to associate their FCVs with it, as well. In fact, the FCHV had a dashboard display showing flow of power to and from the fuel cell, battery, and motor, very much like the display in the Prius; the graphics were more "sculpted" than those of the display in the early-model Prius I rented, sort of like Windows XP icons in comparison with Windows 2000. I haven't seen the display in the new version of the Prius, but I'd bet it's similar. (Sorry, I shot a photo of the FCHV's display but it turned out blurry.)

Volkswagen HyMotion

In addition to the Toyota, GM, DaimlerChrysler, Nissan, Hyundai, and Ford vehicles mentioned above, the Honda FCX was at this rally, and also something new: the Volkswagen HyMotion brought the total number of manufacturers represented to eight. The HyMotion is based on the Touran minivan (not sold in the U.S.); it is a hybrid setup, with a nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery and 5000 PSI fuel tanks. I understand that the vehicle was only in the U.S. for a few weeks, and would be heading back to Germany in a couple of days; unfortunately, it was away refueling or on a photo op or something during most of the time I was there, so I didn't get to ride in it, but I count myself lucky to have gotten a look at it during its brief visit. (That's the GM HydroGen3 behind it.)

On to San Diego

Eight manufacturers is the largest number ever to take their FCVs on the road together! Here they are heading out of the parking lot on their way to San Diego.

Thames & Kosmos fuel-cell car model

The CaFCP had a couple of model fuel-cell car kits from Thames & Kosmos to give away as door prizes; I put my name into the hat, and I found out two weeks later that I had won one of them! I'm lucky that my website isn't commercial or professional in any way, since otherwise it would be a pretty gross conflict of interest for me to accept such a cool gift. The reversible fuel cell is the large red square in the middle of the car, showing a metal grid enclosed in plastic and filled with a few cubic millimeters of distilled water. "Reversible" means that in addition to obtaining electricity from it by putting hydrogen and oxygen into it and making water, you can also put electricity into it and split water back into hydrogen and oxygen, thereby refueling it. (The gases are stored as bubbles in the water-filled "tanks" to the left, at very low pressure; refueling a full-size FCV by splitting water on-board would not be practical, since its hydrogen needs to be highly pressurized in order to store enough for a reasonable range. The necessary compressor would be a big, heavy thing to lug around.) The large solar panel at the right (front) end of the car will fill the tanks with 24 cubic centimeters of hydrogen and half as much oxygen, in about two minutes; you can then disconnect the solar panel, and run it for several tens of meters on the stored fuel (I haven't tested it for range yet). Pretty darn cool!

Actually, having given me this fine gift, the CaFCP has reason to regard me as the most ungrateful #%@&!$ they've ever dealt with. At numerous places on this website I have questioned why we should trust the automakers to follow through with commercialization of FCVs when they have completely abandoned full-sized battery electric vehicles (EVs) and, except for Honda with their Civic GX, have cut back or killed their natural-gas vehicle (NGV) offerings as well. I have badgered the California Air Resources Board, the CaFCP, and the California Hydrogen Highway folks about this issue and related ones; I have written several letters to the editor of our local paper on the topic; and recently I posted on this website a summary of arguments against several of the state's policies with regard to cleaning up motor vehicles. I ask this question of people involved in FCVs every chance I get, including at a meeting of the Hydrogen Highway public-education team that I attended, and at all the events I have written up on this website where FCVs are on the agenda. I have never yet received a satisfactory answer, at least with regard to NGVs. Comparing FCVs to EVs, automakers seem a lot more enthusiastic about the former because, once hydrogen refueling infrastructure is built and once FCV efficiency and range reap the benefits of improvements now being worked on, they will require little change in people's driving habits--go 300 miles, refuel at a public station, repeat. The only thing that will change will be the details of how you refuel (high-pressure gas vs. liquid). By contrast, EVs refuel by themselves overnight in your garage, so they only need enough range for one day's driving, but automakers never saw fit to emphasize the convenience of never having to wait at a refueling station during rush hour; but, again, this is a different pattern, and I guess automakers didn't think it was practical to persuade people to appreciate its advantages. But whatever advantages FCVs have over EVs, NGVS have them in spades: refueling infrastructure in many parts of the country (certainly in California) is already better developed than that for hydrogen will be for twenty years or more, and the vehicles are already affordable and practical. My CNG van's personal best is 326.1 miles on a fill-up, and fuel and maintenance savings can actually make CNG vehicles cheaper overall than gasoline ones despite a few thousand dollars extra initial cost, if you drive a lot. So, maybe the automakers can make an argument that it made sense to abandon EVs, and strand the investment in public recharging stations that had been made by governments and businesses in California; but if there is an argument why it makes sense to abandon NGVs and strand the investment made in public CNG refueling stations, then it would apply many times over to FCVs, which are far more costly to build than NGVs and would have to have an entirely new refueling infrastructure constructed for them. It would go a long way toward instilling confidence in the automakers' stated commitment to FCVs if they would reverse the decision most of them have made to turn their backs on NGVs. Stay tuned.

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new 11 November 2004