Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

On The Road

New fuel for thought Innovative cars, pumps are coming to California

Toyota has unveiled a fuel-cell concept car that could be in dealerships next year.

When we reported in December on announcements at the Los Angeles Auto Show of new developments in fuel systems, we were skeptical about the fuel-cell electronic vehicle (FCEV) concept cars presented by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai. That’s because we had been fooled before.

We were impressed by the 2013 Mercedes-Benz fuel-cell compact that we drove from New Orleans to San Antonio as part of its round-the-world tour. As we noted, hydrogen fuel-cell cars are technically superior to battery-electronic vehicles. They can be built with a 300-mile range and tanks that can be filled in five minutes.

We noted that the only limitation was that there weren’t any fueling stations along most of the route, but everyone assured us that a hydrogen-fuel infrastructure was under development.

When the three manufacturers rolled out their gee-whiz concepts in Los Angeles, each more fantastic than the last, we knew the question to ask: Where are owners going to find hydrogen filling stations? The problem is that as of today, it is illegal in California to sell hydrogen fuel to a retail customer, and there are only 10 sites in the state equipped to fill a personal automobile.

We recently got our answer from Craig Scott, national manager for advanced technologies at Toyota USA. The state of California has mandated that a target percentage of each manufacturer’s sales in the state have to be zero-emissions vehicles, and that percentage grows each year.

But, as Scott explained, the major deterrent to introducing fuel-cell automobiles now is neither technology nor production costs. He noted that Toyota’s production costs are now competitive with other technologies because a fuel-cell car can use most of the same drivetrain and control components as the Prius.

The limiting factor is the lack of filling stations. Furthermore, without vehicles on the road, there is no commercial incentive for filling station owners – most gas stations are privately owned – to spend the $100,000 or so it would cost to install a pair of hydrogen pumps.

But last year’s passage of AB 118, pushed through the progressive legislature by Gov. Jerry Brown, may resolve the chicken-and-egg conundrum. The state is committed to paying the costs of equipping 20 filling stations with hydrogen fuel pumps in 2015, and an additional 20 in 2016, with more to come after that. With this promise, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai presented the vehicles they claim they can have in their dealerships by the end of next year.

Can these few stations in just one state make a difference? In answer, Scott showed the results of a study conducted by Toyota and UC Irvine. Given regional densities of automobiles and travel patterns, Scott reported that 68 stations strategically located at present gas stations in Los Angeles and the Bay Area could handle 10,000 FCEVs, which is pretty much the number required by state long-term mandates. In addition, Air Products Corp., the most likely supplier of hydrogen fuel in the U.S. – has production plants in both regions of the state (hydrogen is used commercially in many industrial processes) that could supply a network of stations at this level.

The map of the first 20 and following 20 stations planned indicates a solid number in our area, with several in San Francisco and San Jose – many between the San Francisco and San Jose airports (rental cars?) and spread down the Peninsula. One appears to be near First and Main streets in Los Altos.

Positioning of these stations, coupled with the state mandates for zero-emission vehicles, would support the rollout plans of the three companies that made their announcements at the LA show. Mercedes-Benz isn’t the only additional company that could have a practical, affordable vehicle in showrooms by 2016.

So, coming soon to a gas station near you: hydrogen fuel. And coming soon – at least by next year – to a dealership near you: fuel-cell cars. But don’t tell anyone – the only places in the U.S. these cars and their fuel supplies will be available is the Bay Area and Los Angeles. From there, we’ll just have to see how free-market forces – or additional states willing to jump-start their own infrastructures – play out.

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