Automobiles powered by hydrogen fuel cells have been discussed for at least 20 years as a future solution for zero emissions.
We drove some of the first press demonstrators as early as 1996, and I drove a Mercedes-Benz prototype from New Orleans to San Antonio as part of its around-the-world drive in 2012.
However, as cars that average owners might buy to drive around town, they’ve always been just over the horizon.
The problem was the fueling infrastructure. Before anyone could actually use one on a daily basis, fueling stations with storage tanks and pumps had to be built, and until enough people were driving them on a daily basis, it wouldn’t pay to equip gas stations with the necessary hardware.
The chicken-and-egg problem is now being resolved by the state of California, which is subsidizing 100 locations – primarily in Los Angeles and the Bay Area – while mandating that all manufacturers selling in California have to offer a specific number of zero-emissions automobiles.
A few weeks ago, our Town Crier editor received an email from Russ Ayres, a resident in south Los Altos: “I’ve just leased a fuel-cell Hyundai; would you be interested in learning about it?”
“Absolutely,” we responded.
Hydrogen stations on the Peninsula? Hyundai as a player in this deep-pockets research topic? We had lots of questions.
Ayres was happy to fill us in. He had seen a Toyota prototype at last summer’s Los Altos Arts & Wine Festival, though it was a sporty two-seater – and he is more of a full-size SUV man.
Nevertheless, Ayres did what any interested engineer would do: He researched the topic online.
He soon learned that Hyundai would also be offering a hydrogen-powered car – and in the much more practical (at least for Ayres) five-passenger Tucson sport-utility model.
As Ayres noted, these cars aren’t yet quite ready for prime-time, but he learned that there was a fuel station only a few blocks from his office near the San Jose airport, as well as in Campbell and on Saratoga Avenue.
Three more stations are planned closer to home as early as next year, in Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto. For longer trips, there are fueling stations in Truckee and Coalinga, so trips to Tahoe and Los Angeles are possible.
Hyundai was taking applications for the few hundred cars they were planning to lease in this first year. Ayres said it’s really more of a science-fair project than an all-out marketing effort, but he submitted his application anyway.
He got a quick response from Capitol Hyundai in San Jose – his application had been accepted. In a quick visit, he learned all he needed to know to sign up. There is no negotiation: The cars are supplied on a three-year lease for $499 a month, with an initial payment of $3,740 (including taxes). In addition, all fuel costs are reimbursed, services are free at the dealer and there will be a California rebate of $5,000 as soon as the state processes the paperwork and an HOV sticker for the car.
When Ayres needs services every six months, the dealer will pick up and deliver the car back to his house.
The only choice was color: Ayres could order his in white, silver or blue. As soon as the dealer confirmed his credit rating, he was told that he could have his own fuel-cell car delivered in two weeks.
Ayres has driven the car approximately 1,400 miles since he got it in July, mostly back and forth to work. The farthest he’s driven between fill-ups, which take roughly 15 minutes, is 253 miles, confirming the promised 265-mile range in the company literature.
Ayres said he couldn’t be happier with the new car, unless it was just a little bigger, and he thinks this science-fair project deserves a blue ribbon.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.