UC Irvines Tests Hydrogen SUVs

UCI's National Fuel Cell Research Center has two of the only 15-Toyota Highlander fuel cell vehicles in the world.

Published: 21-Jan-2004

UC IRVINE -- Vehicles that some would argue are the wave of the future are hitting the road on and around campus.

Engineers from UCI's National Fuel Cell Research Center have been test-driving two hydrogen-powered Toyota SUVs to survey their feasibility and the public's perception of them. Such alternative-fuel vehicles have been receiving more attention since President George W. Bush and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger each pledged their support for the new technology.

A year ago, nobody could have guessed both a Republican president and our governor would come out proactively with plans to be committed to hydrogen for the future," said Scott Samuelsen, director of the center.

Last year, Bush proposed $1.2 billion for researching hydrogen as the fuel for the future. Schwarzenegger has proposed "Hydrogen Highways," a plan for wide-spread rollout of refueling stations.

The UCI-based research center has two Toyota Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicles, which are built on a Highlander chassis. They use hydrogen fuel cells that are refilled at a facility on campus.

By the middle of next year, 14 hydrogen fueling stations will open in Southern California, said Sam Atwood, spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Two Orange County locations -- one in Huntington Beach and one in Irvine -- are being planned with UCI.

UCI's vehicles are two of only 15 produced by Toyota. Half are in use in Japan, he said, and the other half in the United States, primarily at research facilities.

Those vehicles use hydrogen fuel cells, which quietly power the car with less vibration than traditional internal combustion engines because there are no moving parts, Samuelsen said.

"The handling and driving characteristics are fantastic," said Atwood, who has also driven fuel cell vehicles. "They're like happy little gasoline-powered cars."

Samuelsen himself drives a gasoline-powered Highlander to work and said he finds it hard to go back and drive it after driving the hydrogen car.

"It's so well engineered, it's almost too easy," he said of the hybrid SUV. "You get in, turn the key and drive off quietly and elegantly. There's a certain ambience to it."

The center has had one vehicle since November and the other for more than a year.

"The car we've had a year has been remarkably reliable," he said. "We've had no issue yet, whatsoever, which surprises me. With such new technology we expected more hiccups but have had none."

Fueling the vehicles is similar to filling those powered by natural gas. Both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and those powered by an internal combustion engine modified to run on hydrogen can be filled at the same station, Atwood said.

Five cities will also have fueling stations with five modified Toyota Prius hybrid vehicles that run on hydrogen. That, Atwood said, would help generate public interest.

Moving toward alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, will help decrease dependence on foreign oil and price fluctuations caused by world events. The technology is 10 to 15 years from mass production, however, because of cost concerns, Samuelsen said.

More than 10 years of research and development have gone into the vehicles. They are built by hand, meaning that until the technology becomes more widespread, as with the company's hybrid gas-electric Prius, the price will remain prohibitive.

"It's reasonable expect the cost to be millions of dollars per copy," Samuelsen said of the vehicles.

UCI signed a three-year agreement with Toyota to test the vehicles, but Samuelsen expects the center to test each new generation of fuel cell vehicles as the technology advances.

"I think the public will be well served if this technology is allowed to evolve," he said.



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