The Hard Cell
Green machines hit the road.
Thursday, September 12, 2002
Photo by Brett Wilbur.
Photo: Big Wheel-Peter Smith, president of CSUMB, says his test drive convinced him that hydrogen fuel cell cars are the way of the future.
It''s an understandably risky move to hand over the keys to a multi-million dollar car to a reporter. So my first attempts at getting in the driver''s seat of a hydrogen fuel cell car are politely rebuffed.
I''m queued up with a group of cutting-edge automakers, clean-air activists and renewable energy folks-as well as some members of the interested public-at the California Fuel Cell Partnership Road Rally, which arrived on the Peninsula last Wednesday, Sept. 4. Seven cars, all featuring slightly different fuel cell technologies, were unveiled in a road trip that was launched at CSUMB and continued down the coast to San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
"It''s the longest drive a group of these cars has made on the road together," says Michael Coates, Vice President of Green Car Marketing and Communications. "It''s all about taking advanced technology to Main Street America."
I am ushered into the passenger seat of a hybrid Toyota mini-SUV for a few laps around campus.
"It''s a matter of liability," the engineer from Toyota explains kindly, as I slide into the rear seat behind CSUMB President Peter Smith. "The last test drive, too many people ran over curbs."
Granted, with the steering wheel on the right hand side, the hybrid vehicle known as FCHV4 might take some getting used to. But the steering column placement and the quiet operation are the only noticeable differences from a "normal" car.
One big benefit-the fact that the only emission is water vapor-is invisible. It''s a benefit not lost on Smith.
Smith, who drives a hybrid Toyota around campus-a gas and electric Prius-is keenly pleased about hosting a test fleet of hydrogen cars at CSUMB. "We should absolutely be using this kind of technology," he says. "It would make all the sense in the world to have our students involved in the research, and have a filling station on campus."
After we turn the car over to the next group of passengers, Smith offers me a ride in his Prius.
"It''s amazing behavior modification," he says, pointing to the display on his dashboard. It notes Smith''s fuel consumption and miles per gallon as he changes speeds. "And the thing is so quiet I''ve forgotten it''s on and left it running in my driveway until it died."
Smith drops me off back at the road rally, and I return to my mission to drive. Catherine Dunwoody, Executive Director of the Fuel Cell Partnership, sweet-talks the other auto manufacturers into getting me into the driver''s seat.
"We''ve come a long way," says Dunwoody, as I step into a Santa Fe FCEV made by Hyundai. "A few years ago the fuel cell filled the entire back space and the passenger seat of the cars. Now they''re located underneath."
I drive like a granny around campus. The car is smooth, quiet, and no different to drive than any other automatic.
Next is another cautious drive, this time in the Honda FCX.
"Don''t kill anyone," warns engineer Kurt Risic, without a smile.
Finally I step into my last test drive, the brand new Ford Focus FCV. The guys at the pit stop at Ford also caution me to be careful.
But Jonathan Weinert, a wide-eyed, baby-faced engineer riding shotgun, wants to show me how this baby handles. The brakes are heavy, but the car accelerates with a punch and makes an impressive squeal around the corner as Weinert eggs me on.
"Let''s go a little faster," he encourages. "Maybe you should slalom around those cones."
We do a couple of easy swerves-then return to the pit.
Apart from the obvious engineering differences, the car seems just like any other-which is exactly the point.
"From a driver''s standpoint we want the technology to be transparent," Coates says. "The only difference is that the thing coming out of the tailpipe is water."