- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

In the parking lot of a building squeezed between Interstate 80 in California and the Sacramento River, Kota Manabe did something at once as elementary as it was revolutionary: He topped off the tank of a sport-utility vehicle.
The only suggestions that anything was out of the ordinary were the flame-retardant suit the Toyota engineer wore and the fuel he pumped into the Highlander: pure hydrogen.
"Basically, it's just like refueling at a normal station," fellow engineer Kyo Hattori said.
Almost.
While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, as an automotive fuel it's about as commonplace as moon travel. There are only two hydrogen filling stations in the entire state.
The futuristic SUV being tested at the California Fuel Cell Partnership is part of an international push to create cars and trucks that run more cleanly and efficiently than any others in history.
Fuel cells that power the vehicles combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. They emit only water vapor and heat.
But the hydrogen-powered Highlander also exemplifies a critical problem faced by alternative vehicles: They may be friendly to the environment but they're a mystery to consumers.
That conundrum stems from several factors, including consumer uncertainty about performance and resistance to change by automakers. As a result, the spread of alternative fuel vehicles has been slow.
"The Big Three have often used future vehicles as an excuse not to produce current innovations it's the Wimpy approach, the 'I will gladly pay you Tuesday, but don't make us do anything today to increase fuel efficiency and in 10 to 20 years we will produce a much more efficient car,'" said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.
For decades, California has been at the forefront of the clean-vehicle movement aimed at fighting smog and global warming while cutting dependence on oil. The innovations have been driven by California's Air Resources Board, which sets air-quality standards independent of the federal government.
The board says its regulations have spawned innovations in fuel cells, hybrid cars and fuel efficiency to an extent automakers never thought possible.
Now, enterprises such as the California Fuel Cell Partnership aim to help meet the state's zero-emission mandate, which requires an increasing percentage of new cars and trucks to emit no pollution.
The mandate was to have taken effect next year, but auto manufacturers won a preliminary injunction in June that delays implementation for two years.
Alternative fuel vehicles are a big part of the mandate, but the movement has failed to gain much speed. As of 2001, there were about 456,000 alternative-fuel-powered vehicles licensed in the United States, including those that run on batteries, natural gas and ethanol, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Another 40,000 are hybrids, in which a gasoline engine is paired with an electric motor to boost fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. These numbers are dwarfed by the 210 million gasoline and diesel cars and trucks on the nation's roads.
Automakers argue that consumers won't buy cars simply because they are environmentally friendly.
"There can be no sacrifices. This vehicle has to be a better car," said Anthony Eggert, an engineer with Ford's Think Technologies, which is developing a hydrogen fuel-cell car.
Nor will anyone buy newfangled technology unless it's appealing, said Leonard Stobar, a professor at Art Center College of Design, the Pasadena school that turns out roughly half the world's car designers.
"You've got to make them attractive. You can make any vehicle that is good to the environment, but if I don't want to be seen in it, you won't sell it," said Mr. Stobar, who is helping develop a three-wheeled vehicle capable of driving coast-to-coast on a single tank of gas.
Automakers say hydrogen fuel cell vehicles come closest to fitting the bill because their power sources can be packaged in a way that allows more radical body designs. They can also pack a punch, as Mr. Eggert demonstrated on a recent test drive by gunning a Ford prototype.
They're also the cleanest thing going, because they spew only warm water vapor clean enough to inhale.
Honda and Toyota plan to introduce the first hydrogen-powered vehicles in very limited numbers by year's end but claim they need another decade to perfect them.
Safety is a big reason as hydrogen is highly volatile.
For the time being, that leaves battery-powered vehicles as the only pure zero-emission offerings. But their cost, limited range and recharging delays have hampered their popularity.
A number of models have come and gone. The latest are Ford's Think electric vehicles, which the automaker intends to stop selling in the United States because of lack of demand.
One way to lower emissions is to boost fuel economy. But the Bush administration has been loath to boost efficiency requirements, instead throwing its support behind hydrogen research.
Fewer than 6 percent of new U.S. cars and trucks get better than 30 miles per gallon, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2001, the weighted average of all new passenger cars and trucks was 20.4 mpg a 21-year low. Auto manufacturers say consumers don't want fuel-efficient vehicles.
"The fuel economy of our cars will be decided by consumers. They will choose the vehicles that suit them best," said Charles Territo, spokesman for the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers.
Surveys say 60 percent of car and truck buyers are interested in fuel economy but are unwilling to compromise on design and performance, said Thad Malesh, auto analyst with J.D. Power and Associates.
"What they are saying is, 'I still want my truck, I just want better mileage,'" Mr. Malesh said.
Despite all the challenges, cars and trucks have quietly become cleaner and more efficient.
New versions of the Honda Accord, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Prius hybrid are included in California's fleet of "super low-emissions vehicles" because they are 90 percent cleaner than the average new car.
About 50,000 such vehicles have been sold or leased in California.
Some observers find that encouraging.
"There is going to be an explosion of choice for consumers," predicted John Boesel, president of transportation technology consortium Calstart.
"My neighbor will come over and say, 'John, I got a new car' and the natural question will be 'What fuel?'"

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