Honda, Toyota deliver fuel cell cars in California
LOS ANGELES - California, home to the nation\'s toughest smog-limiting laws, this week became a proving ground for the first commercial cars to run on pollution-free fuel cells.
Japan\'s top two automakers - Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. - delivered a handful of market-ready models employing fuel cells, which emit only water vapor, in California as well as Japan.
\"This really is a first important step to ushering in a fossil fuel-free age for mankind,\" said Jim Press, chief operating officer at Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc.
Toyota will lease six zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell sport utility vehicles - under development for 10 years - to University of California campuses at Irvine and Davis, while Honda delivered one of a planned five FCX fuel cell cars to the city of Los Angeles. Earlier this week, the companies delivered fuel cell vehicles to several Japanese government ministries.
\"The automobile industry and governments of the world face many challenges before consumers can walk into a dealership and buy an FCX. This is an important first step,\" said Honda Chief Executive Hiroyuki Yoshino.
\"Spending one of the longest Mondays of his life,\" Yoshino said he delivered a fuel-cell powered car to Japan Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi before catching a plane to deliver a similar vehicle to Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn.
Each Toyota SUV will be leased to the universities for 30 months for around $10,000 a month, while the Honda lease payments are a comparative bargain at $500 a month.
\"We are talking about a lot of technology and a lot of research. These are truly revolutionary products - they are not yet cars that will be driven daily,\" Press said.
SEEKING REAL-WORLD FEEDBACK
Honda, however, is seeking \"real world feedback\" on its FCX cars. \"We don\'t want people to be afraid to drive it,\" said Art Garner, a spokesman for American Honda Motor Co.
Hahn said city employees will use the fuel cell cars on a day-to-day basis, just like any other pool vehicle.
The hydrogen-based fuel cell, which generates electricity to power the car, has long been the best hope for replacing the pollution-making internal combustion engine, but experts say the technology is still a far-off dream for ordinary drivers.
Fuel cells, first used during the Apollo moon project in the 1960s, mix hydrogen and oxygen from air using an electrochemical process to produce electricity. Commercialization is expected to take at least 10 years since the technology requires a big investment in an infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations.
\"There are no hydrogen fuel stations today,\" Press said. Toyota did announce a partnership with Stuart Energy Systems Corp., makers of a mobile refueling station, and Honda has contracted with Air Products and Chemicals Inc.In
addition, the petroleum industry is aware of the need to begin switching to hydrogen-based fuel, Press said.
Cost and consumer acceptance are other big hurdles on the road to mass production.
The Honda has a driving range of 170 miles (274 km), while the Toyota has a 180-mile (290 km) range - limited, but still quite a bit higher than the 100-mile (160 km) range of zero-emission cars powered by electric batteries.
BLAME FOR GLOBAL WARMING
Despite great strides in fuel economy, vehicles running on fossil fuels still emit a tenth of the man-made carbon dioxide that, in addition to smog, has been blamed for global warming and other abnormal climate patterns.
\"You have to consider the full cost of petroleum-based fuels - they aren\'t renewable, they are depleting the earth and they are the basis for geopolitical problems,\" Press said.
Earlier this year, despite opposition from carmakers, California passed the nation\'s first law limiting emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases from cars. It calls for all cars sold in the state to have near-zero emissions by 2009.
With the state making up some 10 percent of the national auto market, some believe the new legislation could become a national model - as happened with laws mandating catalytic converters and lead-free gasoline - that will push auto makers to devise new ways to make cars and trucks run cleaner.
\"We oppose state-by-state laws. We are not opposed to tightening fuel standards. But the problem is \'global\' warming and it should be addressed on a national, or global, level,\" Garner said.
Honda said it plans to release about 30 of its four-seater FCX cars in Japan and the United States over the next two or three years, but has no plans for mass marketing.
Story by Deena Beasley
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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