Cars and SUVs that run on pure hydrogen and emit nothing but clean water were lined up for public test-drives Friday morning in Phoenix, part of an unprecedented cross-country Hydrogen Road Tour to promote the “fuel of the future.”
The two-week road trip to more than 30 U.S. cities is a joint venture by nine auto manufacturers and the U.S. Department of Transportation to demonstrate to the public that hydrogen-powered vehicles are nearly ready for showrooms.
The hand-built demonstration vehicles, all based on existing cars and small sport-utilities, were put into the hands of regular drivers so they could experience how pollution-free driving is visualized for the future, said Paul Brubaker, research administrator for the Transportation Department.
“The common refrain we’re hearing is, ‘When can I get one of these?’ ” Brubaker said. “That tells us the public is really interested in energy independence.”
Most of the demonstration vehicles run on electric motors and use fuel cells to create the electricity on board from hydrogen fuel. They rolled along nearly silently on a closed course set up at GateWay Community College.
A fuel cell works by taking the hydrogen fuel and combining it with ambient oxygen to generate electricity powering the electric motor. The only tailpipe emission is water and a small amount of heat.
Automakers and other fuel-cell researchers are working to overcome durability and cost issues. Some types of fuel cells also are foreseen as powering homes and factories.
BMW was the sole manufacturer to demonstrate conventional cars with internal-combustion engines fueled by hydrogen instead of gasoline. The idea was to show how hydrogen could be used to power performance vehicles, said David Buchco of the German automaker’s advanced-powertrain division.
Hydrogen has been at the forefront of energy research by the major automakers, with President Bush declaring in 2003 that hydrogen technology was the key to America’s energy future. Besides BMW, automakers demonstrating vehicles on the tour are Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai-Kia, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Volkswagen.
Typical of the hydrogen vehicles was Volkswagen’s Tiguan HyMotion, based on the company’s new compact SUV.
“This incredible vehicle has zero emissions and a top speed of 93 miles per hour,” said John Tillman, program manager for VW’s Advanced Powertrain Research Program.
With rising fuel prices, turmoil in the Middle East and growing environmental concerns, hydrogen is foreseen as the way for the world’s drivers to kick the oil habit and clean the air. The biggest challenges, besides fuel-cell development, would be to create the vast quantities of hydrogen required through sustainable means and building a nationwide infrastructure for public refueling.
Stepping out of a fuel-cell Toyota Highlander, Jon Fontana of Surprise said he was “absolutely ready to change over.”
“If they would get the hydrogen through renewable means, I would walk away from my internal-combustion vehicle and step into a fuel-cell vehicle,” said Fontana, 50. “The whole oil thing has been a joke for years.”
Students from GateWay Community College were among hundreds of people who tried out the hydrogen vehicles. Pamela Contreras, 18, said she was most interested in the environmental aspects of hydrogen fuel.
“If people drove cars like this instead of what we have, it would do a lot for the environment and help create jobs,” Contreras said.
Ford, GM and Honda vehicles were absent, already setting up for the tour’s next stop in Palm Springs, said Kim Riddle, a Transportation Department spokeswoman. The tour started in Maine and ends this weekend in Southern California.
Some of the automakers already have hydrogen vehicles on the road being tested by regular drivers. A number of fuel-cell transit buses are also in use, including one in the Phoenix area, Riddle said.
Automakers expect to have hydrogen vehicles ready for sale to the public by 2015, Brubaker said.
“The technology necessary to put these cars on the road and keep them moving exists today,” Brubaker said. “The question is not if hydrogen-powered vehicles will be available but when.”