Your stalwart internal-combustion engine? Well, it’s a little 20th century. This is the age of pocket-size computers and 3-D-printed organs, of missions to Mars and Virtual Boy electronica. For tech-obsessed glitterati still awaiting their robot chauffeurs, there are myriad ways to get around your city while giving the impression that you’ve landed from space.
Gasoline? Boring. An electric car? Too common. The Stanley Steamer? Still nonexistent.
So, hydrogen. Engineers have been experimenting with it since the 1960s. And now, at the intersection of technology, legislation and social consciousness, fuel cell vehicles are a reality.
Hydrogen fueling may seem like a ridiculous idea, but it’s entirely possible today, in Stardate 2016. With a hydrogen car, one gets to buy into the idea of floating along with the most abundant element in the galaxy, in a car that emits nothing but water vapor—plus the soft, warming glow of smugness that takes the air out of Tesla drivers at cocktail parties. You can’t put a price on that.
As humans, you and I are made of stardust. Why not the fuel in our cars? Below, what to know if you’re considering an FCV for your next car.
1. THEY CAN BE REFILLED QUICKLY.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are commonly compared with electric cars. And here’s where FCVs shine: You just need approximately five minutes at the pump to fill one up.¹ Just as convenient as our gasoline-powered brethren, don’t you know?
No waiting around at a truck stop for half an hour with an electric car—and unlike a gasoline car, there are no heady vapors to get all over our clothes.
2. THEIR RANGE IS WHAT YOU’RE USED TO.
Expect a range of around 250 to 300 miles for your average fuel cell vehicle, a range that not only lines up more closely with your average gasoline-powered car, but also one that few electric cars can match. Here is the best-of-both-worlds advantage of the hydrogen car: It offers the range and quick fueling of gasoline, and the environmental friendliness and low operating expenses of an electric car.
3. THEY FEEL GREAT.
Seamless power and nearly instant torque from their electric motors, with hardly any sound at all—the fuel cell vehicle carries with it its own form of automotive experience far removed from grumbling V8s and glasspack mufflers, but nevertheless fascinating. Occupants are buoyed forth with a sound reminiscent of an accelerating spaceship, but precious few other sounds—only the whump-whump of tires over potholes serving to remind that this is indeed a terrestrial vehicle. And, yes, with so much torque underfoot, you can conceivably peel out at a stoplight. If you’re so inclined.
4. THEY WON’T EXPLODE.
Banish all your visions of the Hindenburg: With every mention of a car fueled by hydrogen, there’s always the hackneyed reference to exploding zeppelins. On the Mirai’s website, for example, Toyota took great pains to assure you, dear reader, of hydrogen’s safeness: Carbon-fiber tanks store the hydrogen, rigged with sensors to detect collisions and quickly stop the flow of the gas. Leaking hydrogen is lighter than air and dissipates quickly. And millions of miles of testing from a company that has experimented with FCV vehicles for 25 years may even dispel your “Oh, the humanity!” jokes. You know what else was powered by hydrogen? Apollo. That worked out quite well, you may remember.
5. THEY’RE BUILDING MORE HYDROGEN STATIONS.
As of this writing, there are almost four dozen operating or planned hydrogen stations in California, scattered mainly across the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. A hundred years’ worth of infrastructure development has given gasoline more than a healthy lead, but, as the push continues, give it time: Through a combination of state-level partnerships, private enterprise and manufacturer-led initiatives, California is on track to have 100 stations online across the state by 2020.
6. THEY’RE SUBSIDIZED.
New technology is never cheap. The first cellular phone cost $4000. The more FCVs people buy, the more the price will drop. Carmakers and the government alike want more people to buy ’em, and to that end, purchasers of the Mirai, for instance, are eligible for a potential $5000 rebate from the State of California,² an $8000 tax credit from the feds, and manufacturer incentives too.
Toyota Mirai’s Trailblazer $7500 “purchase support”⁴ includes three years of free fuel, which is nice. And in California, you’ll get the best prize of all: the white carpool-lane sticker, allowing you to bypass the guys stuck alongside you on the 405.
7. THEY’RE NORMAL.
That is the irony inherent in a modern-day hydrogen car. Despite all the gee-whiz, near-impenetrable future tech it took to build one, they appear perfectly normal. You have a steering wheel, a pedal or two, a radio that plays NPR. You have air conditioning. You have a rear seat. You have a slew of cup holders that can fit Big Gulps.
It’s exactly what the engineers intended: The future car is as normal as possible—therefore easier to behold. The only thing that’s truly futuristic is its appearance—and once you climb in, you won’t notice.
8. AND YET, THEY ATTRACT ATTENTION.
Prepare to answer a lot of questions—at Cars and Coffee, at your garage, at every stoplight, while pulling up to the Krispy Kreme drive-through. “It’s a little bit glamorous when people are staring at the car,” says owner Raymond Lim. “I like the novelty behind it. Once, my nine-year-old son asked me if I was planning on tinting the car windows. I asked why, and he answered that he saw drivers staring at him while he was seated in the back. I laughed and responded, ‘They’re not staring at you; they’re staring at the car!'”
Some carmakers put their forward-thinking hydrogen technology into an existing design to make it feel more accessible. But if you’re going to drive a car powered like nothing else on the road, you might as well do so in a car styled like nothing else. The attention you will get, and the questions you will answer in every Denny’s parking lot, will make sense when you’re driving a car that is exclusive to the extreme.
THEY ARE THE FUTURE.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles take the most abundant element in the galaxy, fuse it to air flowing through the radiators, and generate electricity—in a sense, practically out of thin air. Toyota references this even in the name of its hydrogen car: In Japanese, mirai means “future,” reflecting the notion that you, too, can have a piece of the future—you just may not have realized it yet.