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Alec Brooks with tzero electric sports car
Alec Brooks with AC Propulsion's tzero electric sports car. Brook's delivered a withering analysis of fuel cell technology at this week's public workshop in Sacramento.

Fuel Cell Disruptor

Part One of presentation at December 5, 2002 ARB public workshop.

By Alec Brooks

I have been closely following the ZEV mandate since it was adopted in 1990. In the early years of the mandate, EVs were the 'new thing' and were the darlings of the media. Over the years the mandate has been changed, delayed, and weakened under tremendous pressure from automakers.

When I started to read the background information describing the latest round of proposed changes, I was initially encouraged to see on the first page that the pure ZEV was still going to be a requirement. However, after reading the document through, I had the sinking feeling that the proposed new regulations spelled the death knell for zero emission vehicles.

I say this because it appears that CARB has effectively given up on battery electric vehicles, and is placing a high risk bet that fuel cell vehicles will in fact become practical in the future.

While this may in fact happen, it is not at all certain. There was a lot of publicity earlier this week about fuel cell vehicles from Toyota and Honda entering service. Toyota's press release headline from Monday this week proudly proclaimed their fuel cell vehicle to be "Market Ready". This is of course a tiny exaggeration. As John O'Dell reported in Tuesday's LA Times: "Representatives from both companies call the deliveries historic, but they cautioned that it will be decades before motorists can walk into a dealer's showroom an drive away in one of the vehicles."

But are fuel cell vehicles really the holy grail – the end game for providing clean personal mobility? The popular and accepted view is that they are.

The thinking goes along the lines of: fuel cells far more efficient than an IC engines because they are based on an electrochemical process rather than combustion; they are quiet, there are no moving parts, no greenhouse gas emissions, only pure water for emissions, and will have far more range than battery electric vehicles. It sounds great.

But today I want to share with you some perspectives on fuel cell and battery electric vehicles that differ from the conventional wisdom.

First – what about driving range and efficiency of fuel cell vehicles – where is the data? There have been a lot of pronouncements but not much in the way of data. Actual range and hydrogen consumption data are very closely held, but there are some indications that might indicate that there are problems with range and efficiency.

In the Michelin Bibendum challenge last year, the fuel cell vehicles that participated drove relay-style in legs of only 30 miles between Fontana and Las Vegas. The vehicles were tested for efficiency as part of the event – but the companies that brought the fuel cell vehicles made it a condition of their participation that the actual hydrogen consumption data not be released.

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