In almost a decade of test driving hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars, I began to recognize a familiar pattern. The drive itself was short, usually a round or two around a race track or a closed-road course. I was once flown all the way to Japan to drive a Honda FCX about half a mile through a parking lot. Sitting in the passenger seat was an engineer with a laptop and a clipboard, nervously watching for malfunctions.
Fortunately, those days are gone. A newly confident Honda gave me the keys to an FCX for a whole week, and I didn't have to give the spare bedroom over to an engineer. The car performed flawlessly on my daily round, which included delivering my daughter to her school concert. Her fellow musicians took turns sitting in the passenger seat when they heard the FCX was worth $2 million. Now the new FCX Concept model is on test tracks, and Honda says it will actually be selling some in 2008.
The author with GM's fuel cell Sequel
More recently, last May, I helped drive the Chevrolet Sequel fuel-cell car from Rochester to Tarrytown, New York, proving it does indeed have a range of 300 miles on a tank of compressed hydrogen gas. The Sequel is fast, quiet and fun to drive -- even car buffs are impressed.
If it were just about the vehicle itself, we'd all be at the wheel of fuel-cell cars and trucks very soon. They run on an infinitely renewable fuel, and produce no tailpipe emissions. But as skeptics like Joseph Romm will tell you, there are still huge hurdles to getting hydrogen cars on the road in any significant numbers. We have 180,000 gas stations in the U.S., and we'd need probably a quarter of them to offer pump hydrogen. Right now, there are less than 80 such stations in North America. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Hydrogen Highway" offers one way forward.
Honda's sleek FCX Concept
The Department of Energy has set a goal of producing hydrogen at $2 to $3 per gallon equivalent by 2015, but the high cost of natural gas (from which hydrogen is separated in the most popular method of steam reformation) pushes the price to the equivalent of $6 to $8 a gallon. Hydrogen can be produced from water, but in regions with expensive grid electricity that's even more pricey. Solar, wind and even nuclear hydrogen offer promise, but only that.
In 2007, the hydrogen energy economy is still tantalizingly out of reach.
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