- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

SONOMA, Calif. — Gregg Kelly of Newport Beach, Calif., tells of an incident that occurred during his early days of test-driving Toyota’s hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle.

He wheeled the sport utility into his driveway after a day at the office, and his dog came bounding out of the house. After greeting his owner, the dog began lapping up the water dribbling from the exhaust pipe. An alarmed Mr. Kelly immediately called Toyota to see if his dog were in any danger. Indeed, his pet would not be harmed by the water, which is the only byproduct of a fuel-cell propulsion system.

Mr. Kelly is more careful about letting his dog near the tailpipe, but beyond that, his experimental sport utility is pretty normal. “It drives just like a regular car except it has no noise and no vibration,” said Mr. Kelly, who was selected by Toyota to spend a year behind the wheel of a fuel-cell vehicle, taking notes and providing feedback to Toyota.

Along with others, Mr. Kelly’s vehicle was on hand for journalist test-drives at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum held here in September.

The event is a gathering, forum and competition of alternative-fuel vehicles from around the world. This year’s event was held in northern California; it is in the United States every other year. Last year it was in Germany and France; next year it will be in China.

This year’s Challenge Bibendum consisted of 108 alternative-fuel vehicles, half of them production vehicles and another half experimental prototypes. The fleet included the largest number of fuel-cell vehicles — 14 — ever gathered in one location.

Virtually every automobile manufacturer believes hydrogen is the ultimate solution to higher fuel economy and zero emissions. All had hydrogen-powered prototypes at the Challenge Bibendum. Toyota is aggressively pursuing fuel-cell technology. In fact, Toyota and Honda are the only two automakers to have fuel-cell vehicles running on U.S. roads. Like Toyota, Honda has some in fleets, specifically in Los Angeles.

Last December, Toyota said it would put fuel-cell vehicles on Los Angeles streets to gain real-world experience. Mr. Kelly was the only individual to receive one. The University of California Irvine and the University of California Riverside, both heavily involved in fuel-cell research, each received one.

Toyota just announced that each university would receive another one: the next-generation versions with improved brakes and luxury interiors. Toyota also has three fuel-cell vehicles with the California Fuel Cell Partnership, one at Toyota’s Torrance, Calf., headquarters and 10 with government agencies and private companies in Japan.

Toyota said the first fuel-cell vehicles put on California roads, including the one driven by Mr. Kelly, have logged nearly 6,000 miles since December.

The Toyota’s fuel-cell vehicles are based on the Highlander midsize sport-utility vehicle. They contain a Toyota-developed fuel-cell system with four high-pressure hydrogen fuel tanks. Hydrogen gas feeds into the fuel-cell stack where it is combined with oxygen. It generates a peak of 90 kilowatts of electricity, which powers the electric motor to generate 109 horsepower and 194 foot-pounds of torque. It also charges the vehicle’s nickel-metal hydride batteries. The only emission is water that drips out the tailpipe.

“These vehicles aren’t science projects we view behind glass,” said Bill Reinert, who is in charge of Toyota’s fuel-cell program in the United States. “They’re real-world rolling laboratories, and we’re getting invaluable real-world data.”

Indeed, the real-world data they are providing indicate that they show great promise, but also have their challenges. Mr. Kelly, president of Orthodyne Inc., an Irvine, Calif., company that makes robotics for the computer industry, has long been interested in electric-drive vehicles, which is probably why he was selected as a test driver by Toyota. He uses the fuel-cell car as his daily driver. He’s happy with the vehicle.

His major complaint is the lack of distance it can travel on a tank of fuel. Toyota says its fuel-cell vehicle can go only 180 miles on a tank of hydrogen. Mr. Kelly fills up his hydrogen tank through a relatively simple process that takes about 10 minutes either at Toyota’s headquarters in Torrance, Calif., or at another hydrogen refueling station established by hydrogen-supplier Air Products.

Driving range, cost — fuel-cell systems still cost about 10 times more than gasoline internal combustion engines — and a hydrogen infrastructure remain the most daunting challenges for fuel-cell proponents. It was a subject that generated much spirited exchange at the Michelin Challenge Bibendum.

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