Hydrogen fueled Toyota Tacoma
Tai Robinson's hydrogen fuel-powered Toyota Tacomo 4X4 can run on variety of fuels including ethanol.

Hydrogen Heroics

Part three of report on the vehicles of the 2003 Michelin Challenge Bibendum

By Bill Moore

But for all Toyota's sophistication, it was DaimlerChrysler's latest iteration of its fuel cell A-Class Mercedes -- dubbed FCell -- that was voted the best car of the competition, at least by one writer. According to British automotive journalist Jesse Crosse, with whom I shared driving the new Prius, the FCell was by far the best fuel cell car on display. Being based in the UK, he's had a chance to drive the various evolutions of the car and assured me that this car surpasses anything he's driven to date, including Toyota and Honda's fuel cell vehicles. I'll have to take his word for it, but I will make a point to drive it at EVS 20 next month, if its there.

As for Honda, between their FCX, their Insight, and their CNG Civic, they ended up walking off with the most number of trophies at the end of the competition, followed by Toyota. The FCX is the first fuel cell car to be placed into commercial service in Japan and the US, where several are in service with the city of Los Angeles.

While having nowhere near the capital resources of the likes of DaimlerChrysler, GM, Ford, or even Honda, Korean carmaker Hyundai nevertheless brought two fuel cell-powered Santa Fee SUVs to take part in the competition.

A Clear Message
The message of this year's Bibendum is clear, fuel cells work and are gradually being put to work in practical, every-day driving situations both in the US and Japan. Toyota announced it was leasing more of its FCHVs in California and the FCell will begin package delivery around Detroit with UPS. But what needs to be remembered is that all these vehicles cost millions of dollars each. The lease cost of a Honda FCX is just under $7,000 a month in Japan. So, it will be sometime before the average car buyer will have the opportunity to buy or lease a fuel cell vehicle.

However, one small start-up wants to change that. Sacramento-based Anuvu [pronounced "a-new-view"] claims their fuel cell vehicle will cost a fraction of the big OEM models. They debuted a Suzuki station wagon with their proprietary fuel cell stack. According to Craig Newhouse, the company's national sales manager, Anuvu wants to get affordable fuel cells into the small fleet market.

They have developed what amounts to a fuel cell series hybrid. Their fuel cell stack can be sized just large enough to give their demonstration car sufficient range for the car to meet the fleet's normal daily drive. Think of it as a battery range extender of sorts. The car will operate most of the time off its low cost lead-acid batteries, with the modest 10 kW fuel cell providing just enough power to keep the batteries charged for its normal duty cycle. The idea is to equip taxis and small parcel delivery fleets with these vehicles.

As I was talking with Newhouse, UC Davis professor Dr. Andy Burke walked up. He told me that he had tested Anuvu's fuel cell stack and gotten performance readings comparable to far more expensive Ballard stacks, which pleased Newhouse immensely. It also confirmed for me that Anuvu isn't just some fly-by-night outfit. These folks have some serious -- and most importantly -- cost effective technology. Their approach to the problem may not work for most consumer vehicles, but it could work well for the niche they are targeting.

Fuel Cell Mass Transit
I can't leave the topic of fuel cell heroes without mentioning a pair of fuel cell buses that participated in the Challenge Bibendum.

Surprisingly, one of the very first fuel cell buses ever built was still going strong during the Challenge. Powered by an early sodium fuel cell, the 30 passenger transit bus originally saw service in the Washington, DC area, earning it the monicker of the "DC" fuel cell bus, despite the fact that it also has operated in Palm Springs. Recently it began calling the UC Davis campus its home, something Dr. Daniel Sperling noted to me with marked pride. He commented that the fact that this bus is still running after something like a decade of operation strongly suggests that fuel cells will have the necessary longevity to provide profitable service.

The second bus is one of thirty state-of-the-arts DaimlerChrysler buses that are being delivered to ten European cities where they will be placed in revenue service. This is a big, stylish public transit bus in the European tradition. The day I saw it, it was full of bags of cement and laptop computers as part of the test regime it underwent during the Bibendum.



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