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 December 02, 2013
Era of hydrogen fuel cell cars begins next year

 The moment was pure Schwarzenegger.

In April 2004, California's then-governor paraded before the press a specially equipped Toyota Highlander that ran on hydrogen and spat nothing out the tailpipe but water.

Fuel cell cars, he said, would soon appear on California's roads, helping the state wean itself off of oil and fight global warming. Speaking to a pack of dignitaries and reporters at UC Davis, he committed California to building up to 200 hydrogen fueling stations by 2010, an effort that came to be known as the "hydrogen highway."

Nine years later, fuel cell cars still haven't arrived.

Public attention - and government funding - shifted to biofuels and electric cars. While some automakers pushed forward on fuel cells, others placed their bets on plug-ins, introducing mass-market electric cars that are slowly but steadily gaining sales.

The hydrogen highway initiative sputtered out. Only nine hydrogen stations are now open to the public in California, serving a fleet of roughly 250 fuel cell cars deployed as experiments.

But in 2014, that may finally, finally change.

Hyundai plans to start leasing a fuel cell version of its Tucson sports utility vehicle in March or April. At recent auto shows in Tokyo and Los Angeles, both Honda and Toyota showed off fuel cell cars expected to hit the market in 2015.

And California's state government is getting back in the game. In September, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will devote $20 million per year to building hydrogen fueling stations. The funding, drawn from existing vehicle registration fees, will last through 2024 and pay for at least 100 stations.

300 miles on a tank

To the true believers, fuel cell cars offer the promise of zero-emission driving without some of the drawbacks that have plagued plug-ins. They can go up to 300 miles on a full tank of hydrogen - farther than any electric other than the Tesla Motors Model S. And refilling takes less than 10 minutes, a speed no electric-car charging station can match. Hydrogen pumps even look and work much like their counterparts that dispense gas.

"We see in fuel cells a vehicle with no compromises," said Jana Hartline, environmental communications manager for Toyota Motor Sales USA. "From a driver perspective, a customer perspective, you have essentially the same experience you'd have with an internal combustion engine, but with zero emissions."

But the technology still has pitfalls - and vocal detractors.

Hydrogen stations are extremely expensive to build, with estimates ranging from $1.5 million to $2 million or more. And they need a source of hydrogen. It has to be piped in, trucked in, or generated on site by re-forming it from natural gas. Creating a network of electric-car charging stations, which tap into the local power grid, would be far simpler.

Can't fuel up at home

Plus, drivers of fuel cell cars won't have the option of fueling up at home, at least not for a while. Companies such as Honda have been experimenting with home-based systems to re-form hydrogen from natural gas, but many experts don't expect them to reach the marketplace for years.

To critics, those drawbacks make fuel cell cars a waste of time. At a recent event in Germany, Tesla's seldom-shy CEO Elon Musk referred to fuel cell vehicles as "bull-" and "rubbish."

"There's no way for it to be a workable technology," he said. He also questioned the cars' safety, noting that hydrogen can be explosively dangerous.

"It's suitable for the upper stage of rockets but not for cars," said Musk, who also heads the SpaceX rocket company.

Fuel cell cars and electric vehicles share many of the same components. But they use very different means of storing and generating energy.

Both types of vehicles employ electric motors to turn their wheels, rather than the internal combustion engine found in gas-burning cars. In plug-in cars, the electricity comes from a large, rechargeable battery pack.