Significant Numbers of Fuel Cell Cars on the Road by 2004

It is the ideal source of energy, this article explains. The author suggests “Nothing is perfect, except hydrogen”. What could be cleaner and better for our vehicles than hydrogen fuel cells? And so, in 2000 the author predicted that in just four years there would be significant numbers of the vehicles on the road, like the Honda V3. However, he also acknowledged just one tiny little problem:

Hydrogen may be ecologically and technologically the logical fuel right now for fuel cell cars, but there is no consumer distribution system in place. While methanol, a liquid, can be piped, trucked and stored in the existing network for gasoline with minor conversion costs, hydrogen will require an entire new fuel distribution infrastructure. Partly for this reason, fuel cell vehicles even in California, where government subsidies and regulations are the most favorable to fuel cell development in the world, fuel cell vehicles are not expected to be on the road in significant numbers until 2004.

Ooops. Maybe he meant four years from 2004? Or four years from 2008? The simple problem is that the beauty of the current gasoline and diesel fueling system is distribution and availability. Although it is centrally controlled by only a few select powerful men, they make it easily available to us for consumption. Who will build the super-structure necessary for hydrogen distribution? It is no small task given that nothing exists today that is suitable. In other words, the very thing that makes a fuel source useful (availability) appears to be a huge and almost insurmountable problem for hydrogen right now. There is not even a safe and universal standard for how to get the hydrogen out of a tank and into a car. And this problem is not getting better at any perceivable rate (last I checked discussion was still open on the practicality and safety of ISO 17268:2006 — refueling connector devices).

Compare that with the tried-and-true diesel engines, as discussed in the same article:

When asked about diesel cars, Matsuo had definite opinions, since it turned out he had a background in diesel engineering. His comments were interesting: “The efficiency of the diesel engine is very good, but the bad point is that it can’t get rid of some of the pollutant material, especially the particulate matter. The newest carburators produce precise high pressure injection into the cylinder which greatly increases combustion.”

Like others we talked with that day, Matsuo’s comments reflected a perception that the U.S. market, and California in particular, is more committed to zero-emissions than the rest of the world. When asked how close the new diesel cars have come to complying with ultra-low emissions standards, Matsuo wasn’t sure. He said “there are new catalysers being developed to absorb more particulate matter, it’s getting better year by year.”

And that is prior to changing the fuel itself to biodiesel, which has been proven to reduce harmful emissions. So the current pace of advancing engine technology along with the advance in biofuel availability has real potential that can immediately impact hundred of millions of vehicles on the road today. You also can buy a brand new Honda, Mercedes, Dodge, Audi, VW, etc. diesel vehicle, get 40-50 mpg with lower harmful emissions and start making a significant individual impact right away. And, of course, diesel fuel itself is already highly available and biodiesel is trivial to store safely even in large quantities.

That being said, I am really curious if the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle has improved since 2000, since the article mentions that the technology was not yet safe to drive on the open road:

We asked him what the car was doing, going in circles around the lot, and his answer indicates the cars are still very much in a development stage, “This fuel cell is not very good at lower temperatures, so we do not want to start the fuel cell system on a public road.” The car in question, Honda’s V-3, is one of the most advanced hydrogen fuel cell cars in the world, but it can not run on the open road before being warmed up for at least 5 minutes. So much for a quick start.

There’s a good slogan: “Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: going in circles”. According to a 2006 press release from Honda, their V3 is at least another…wait for it…four years away from being released to consumers. Now why does that sound so familiar? For comparison sake, that is a year later than the release of their 2.2L i-CTDi diesel engine to the US market (made available in 2005 elsewhere in the world).

Aside from the danger of just operating the hydrogen vehicles, I wonder what would happen in an accident when an EMT has to decide whether they can use heavy machinery to pry open the car. Would they hesitate? Are these new technologies being designed with the ultimate safety test in mind? I remember some confusion and controversy about hybrids:

A network of high-voltage circuitry that may require some precise cutting to save a trapped victim.

“You don’t want to go crushing anything with hydraulic tools,” said Samuel Caroluzzi, an assistant chief with the Norristown Fire Department outside Philadelphia. “It’s enough to kill you from what they’re telling us in training.”

At least with hybrids the car manufacturers have been trying to get the word out about how to handle the cars in an emergency, according to the Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Safety site:

To ensure safety, Honda and Toyota created specific guides for first responders.

Toyota sent its guide to every fire department in the nation when its first hybrid was introduced a few years ago, said Sam Butto, a company spokesman. New guides are available for the company’s latest hybrid Lexus and Highlander models. All the guides can be found free online.

Thus, I propose a better test. Hydrogen fuel-cell readiness should be measured by the date that the manufacturers try to send a guide to every fire department in the nation. Accurate predictions could be based on an increasing number of visits to fire departments per year, such as an 80% coverage program might indicate fuel-cell vehicles will be on the road within three to six months. Until then, why not get a new diesel and run biofuel?

Without being immodest, we’d go so far as to claim that the Swindon-built CR-V i-CTDi is the greenest and most socially responsible SUV in the land.

Diesel is the future fuel of today.

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