As far as test drives go, this was going to be a long one. Five days across, and at times crisscrossing, the congested roads of Southern California. Not something to look forward to, you might say, but in this case it was. I was stepping into what carmakers call the automotive future: a car powered by non-polluting hydrogen and fuel cells.
It'll be years, if at all, before fuel cell cars are widely driven, given the obstacles ahead — among them the high costs of fuel cells and hydrogen. But I couldn't resist the chance to see just how far the technology has developed.
About 60 fuel cell cars are being tested around the country, most in California, where anti-pollution rules are the toughest in the nation. But few are ready to be driven around without a team of engineers behind them.
The Honda FCX is one of those, in fact 12 have been deployed in California, and the company was quick to make one available when asked about a test drive this summer.
The request granted, I traveled to American Honda's headquarters in Torrance, Calif., where I expected a long session on what to monitor, what buttons not to press and how to react in case of any hydrogen leaks.
Instead, it was pretty much "here are the keys" and "this gauge shows you how many miles you have left in the tank."
"That's about all there is to it," Honda spokesman Juan Avila assured me before I took off for Santa Monica and two interviews for another story.
Sounds and speed
The first impressions were about sound: Fuel cell cars are essentially electric vehicles and they make clicks and whirling sounds when they start. The sounds occur during a 12-second system check that engineers hope to eventually eliminate.
Ignition was otherwise quiet, definitely not the sound of an internal combustion engine turning over.
Driving was quiet as well; the loudest sounds were the wheels on pavement and the whine of an electric motor that grows when you hit the accelerator.
It also didn't take long to notice the quick acceleration. Because they deliver power directly to the wheels, electric vehicles have that advantage — as anyone who's driven an electric golf cart can attest to this.
In the case of fuel cell cars, the industry is tending toward providing additional electric punch by adding a special battery or capacitor to the vehicle. Already in use on gas-electric hybrids, this hardware stores energy from braking.
On hybrids, however, the battery doesn't really deliver an extra punch since it's dedicated to helping the gasoline engine — as the owner of a 2001 Toyota Prius hybrid, I can vouch for the dramatic difference in acceleration with the two-door FCX. Making that green light before it turned red was no problem with a slight step on the FCX accelerator.
I'd also test driven an electric vehicle a few years ago and while it had quick initial acceleration it nearly stopped when I drove it up a hill with the air conditioning on high. Not so the FCX. Sure it tops out at around 93 mph, according to Honda, but I had the air on most of the time with no noticeable drop in performance.
Half range of gas car
What did drop quickly was the fuel gauge. While hydrogen delivers two to three times the mileage of gasoline, it takes up more storage room. Getting it to fit in a similar size tank as gasoline requires compressing the hydrogen, but so far the most engineers can squeeze in without a much bigger tank is a range half that of gasoline cars.
In the FCX's case, that's about 160 miles between fill-ups, but there aren't many hydrogen stations — a second major obstacle to widespread use of fuel cell cars. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to deploy 200 hydrogen stations by 2010, but just 13 exist now.
It didn't take long to get through half a tank. After my interviews, it was back to the airport to pick up MSNBC.com photographer James Cheng and then back to Honda to interview engineers about the company's prototype hydrogen station for the home. (Stay tuned for that report.)
The interviews provided an opportune time to top off the tank, and an awakening to the fact that hydrogen is much more flammable than gasoline. I hadn't noticed until it was time to fill up that the FCX has two openings on its right side. Pull the fuel lever inside the car, and the first panel to open reveals a plug to ground the car — a valuable feature given that the slightest static electricity can set off hydrogen.
Engineers expect to eventually hide the grounding feature but for now it's a safety step. They also note that while hydrogen can ignite more easily than gasoline it is not as explosive; in other words it won't radiate fire as widely.
Running on empty
Refueling over the next few days would be a breeze, I figured, because we'd would be hooking up with a rally of other fuel cell cars driving to San Diego.
It was easy — up until the third day when I noticed the gauge showed we had about 40 miles left. We were en route to Camp Pendleton, a Marine base near San Diego, without any idea how far it was.
As we headed down Interstate 5, James suggested throwing out some luggage. I suggested leaving him on the side of the road.
We did make it to the base, where a mobile refueling station awaited the rally cars, but not before having driven 157 miles on a tank.
That was the last time we'd need to refuel, our last leg being a short drive to San Diego.
But that leg provided two valuable experiences: a long, steep incline on I-5 where the FCX topped out around 78 mph while other cars whizzed by; and a lack of quick acceleration when getting on the freeway from a stopped position.
Driving up the incline made clear that internal combustion engines still provide more overall horsepower. The sluggish acceleration, an engineer later told me, reflects the fact that while the FCX's capacitor provides energy from braking while the car is moving, it doesn't store it while stopped. So from a stopped position, there's no extra punch to draw on.
The last leg also provided the only significant public reaction to the car. Even with its "Fuel Cell Power" decals on either side, the car didn't seem to draw attention over the previous days, but after 400 miles we were finally being noticed.
"Hey, there's a fuel cell car," one man told a friend at a parking lot.
We also got a thumbs-up from two drivers. It felt all the more gratifying seeing that support from behind the wheels of an SUV and a large pickup truck — the kind of polluting gas guzzlers that a fuel cell future could send to the junkyard.