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Water out the Tailpipe: A new class of electric car gains traction

Water out the Tailpipe: A new class of electric car gains traction

NYT Syndicate

Steve Manning, a financial consultant in Southern California, liked the idea of driving a car that would go easy on the environment.
But last November, as he eyed a $58,000 Toyota Mirai at the dealership near his home in Santa Ana, he had to think more than twice.
This was not just any electric car. Its electricity comes from fuel cells powered by hydrogen, which means the only tailpipe emissions are water vapour. That would be good for the climate, but a logistical challenge for the consumer.
In Manning's case the nearest hydrogen filling station was seven miles from his house. And the technology was still so new that there were fewer than a dozen others in the entire state.
"Is this really practical?" he asked himself. In the end, he took a leap of faith, agreeing to lease a silver Mirai for $499 a month."I said, 'If it sucks, it sucks,'" he recalled in a recent telephone interview.
He has no regrets. Because of a big push by the state of California to invest in a growing network of filling stations, he has never run out of fuel. Driving a hydrogen-powered car has proved a pleasant surprise to Manning and others in California's small but growing cadre of owners of fuel-cell cars.
Like other electrics, the Mirai does not have a transmission and accelerates quickly from a stop."I can burn rubber," said Glenn Rambach, a retired engineer who bought one last fall.
For years, automakers, environmentalists and scientists have promoted hydrogen fuel cells as a breakthrough technology that will eventually enable people to travel without puffing pollutants and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Fuel cells operate by setting off a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the air. When they bond, an electric charge and a small amount of water are created. A few hundred cells stacked together generate enough electricity to power a car motor.
And compared with other types of electric cars, which must be recharged by drawing power from some sort of electricity, hydrogen fuel-cell cars do not need recharging and have a longer cruising range. (Not that hydrogen, which is sold as a highly compressed gas provided by industrial suppliers, is easy for any home chemist to produce in sufficient, useful quantities.)
But the hydrogen future has been slow to arrive because of a frustrating predicament: Automakers had little incentive to produce fuel-cell vehicles as long as there were no hydrogen stations to fill them up; energy companies saw no sense in opening stations if there were no cars on the market.
So it took financial backing from the state of California, as well as Toyota, Honda and other automakers, to spur development of hydrogen fuelling stations. Twenty are now open to the public, and three more go into service this month. The number should rise to 50 by the end of next year, according to California officials.
California also encourages zero-emission cars by letting them use the swift, high-occupancy vehicle lanes on the famously crowded freeways. The state also offers tax rebates to consumers who buy or lease hydrogen-powered cars, which in the case of the Mirai is worth $5,000 ” in addition to a $4,000 federal tax credit.
But California is a rarity. Other than some experimental publicly supported projects with hydrogen fuel-cell cars in Washington and the Northeast, there is no hydrogen fuelling-station network elsewhere in the United States to support the sale and use of the cars.
And only a few other countries in the world actively support the technology.
Japan, where Toyota has been selling the Mirai since late 2014, now has about 80 fuelling stations. South Korea has about a dozen hydrogen stations and is investing to build more as Hyundai nears the debut of its Ioniq fuel-cell car.
In Europe, Mirai sales recently started in Denmark, which has nine stations, as well as in Britain, Belgium and Germany. But Toyota expects to sell only about 100 of the vehicles in Europe this year.
Manning now has enough fuelling options in Southern California to cover his 45-mile commute to Playa Vista with little anxiety. He runs 90 miles down to San Diego three or four times a month, a trip that consumes more than a half a tank of hydrogen. But now he can swing off the freeway to a station in San Juan Capistrano to top off along the way.
"I have a pickup truck, but I don't drive it that much anymore," Manning said."I love to drive the Mirai. I get a lot of people who want to take pictures of it."


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