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msnbc.com
updated 10/3/2004 8:48:22 PM ET 2004-10-04T00:48:22

As thousands of drivers in thousands of gas-guzzling, pollution-spewing vehicles whizzed by the freeway below, eight special cars were being prepped for the start of a 200-plus-mile roadtrip through Southern California.

Most of the world's top automakers were showing off these cars and their potential to some day eliminate emissions — and drastically lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

Instead of burning fossil fuel in internal combustion engines, these vehicles use what's called a fuel cell stack to create electricity from hydrogen and air (see the "evolving engine" interactive at right for details). There are two big advantages to these engines: Water is the only emission, and hydrogen contains more energy than gasoline, which means more efficient vehicles.

Hydrogen highway plan
The potential was underscored at the ceremonial start of the four-day rally, held in mid-September. "The future is now," Bill Burke, chairman of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said at the agency's headquarters outside Los Angeles. "We're depending on this technology to cure this problem," he said, referring to air pollution.

Video: Tailpipe drink

California's environmental chief was there as well, touting Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Hydrogen Highway plan for 200 fueling stations by 2010.

Hydrogen would then be "in the reach of every Californian, so that these cars will go from the test track to the showroom,” said Terry Tamminen, head of California's Environmental Protection Agency.

"There are no showstoppers," he told the audience. "It's ready to take us to the grocery store or on the family vacation."

And "if you do it in California," he said, "you can do it in the rest of the world."

Moving beyond plug-in electric cars
In an interview with MSNBC.com, Tamminen said he doesn't see a repeat of what happened to plug-in electric cars, whose long charging times killed their chances of being mass marketed.

“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe," he said. "So it’s relatively easy to make, store, transport and use as a fuel, and much more like the petroleum infrastructure that we’re used to. You can have it in stations where you can refill your car in a matter of minutes as opposed to many hours.”

Slideshow: Fuel cell specs So with that kind of enthusiasm and support, what's to keep hydrogen and fuel cells from becoming a reality?

Well for one, there's the chicken or the egg problem. "No one wants to build a network of fueling stations if we don't have mass production of cars; no one wants to mass produce vehicles if we don't have the fueling stations," Tamminen said.

And that's where the hydrogen highway idea comes in. "The plan is to bring all of these people to the table, get this shared vision ... and then lay out the future in detail," Tamminen said.

But even if 200 stations get built by 2010, there's still no guarantee of a fuel cell future given other obstacles. To start with, building fuel cell vehicles remains prohibitively expensive; one engineer estimated those on the road today average out at $1 million. And the cheapest hydrogen still costs two to three times more than a gallon of gasoline.

So what's the road ahead? Four days traveling with these vehicles provided a pretty good idea of the paved portions, and the potholes. Click on the Day 1 link below to follow the journey.

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