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Daimler Chrysler gears up for next hydrogen car

Will there be as many hydrogen cars on the road in 10 years as there are hybrids today? Daimler says so.

Daimler Chrysler isn't giving up on hydrogen.

Next year, the company will roll out its second test hydrogen car, called the "B Class," to test drivers, according to Nick Cappa, manager of Advanced Technology Communication at the company. The car will be bigger than the current A Class (see picture) and go about 250 miles before running out of fuel.

Daimler's A Class hydrogen Mercedes James Martin/CNET

The fuel cell stack, the part that converts hydrogen and oxygen into electrons and water, will also ideally last about 5,000 hours, about the same amount as a conventional gas engine. Currently, the fuel cell stack destined for the B Class lasts about 2,500 hours. It will also convert about 50 to 60 percent of the fuel into actual work. The fuel cell in the A Class is about 38 to 45 percent efficient while gasoline cars rank only 14 percent. (All that engine heat--that's gasoline being converted to a non-productive use.)

The company will build hundreds of the vehicles too, in "near production" facilities that are more similar to the assembly line than those used for the earlier A Class. Only 60 or so of the A Class machines were built.

"By 2012 to 2015, we believe we will start seeing as many fuel cell vehicles as there are hybrids today," Cappa said in an interview this week. "We have been working on fuel cell technology for 12 years."

That's a more optimistic outlook than you will hear from other car companies, which say hydrogen vehicles will start rolling out in 2015. Still, if you count things like hydrogen-powered fork lifts already being used by Wal-Mart, delivery vans and municipal fleet cars, the prediction starts to look a little less outlandish.

Hydrogen cars are also pretty fun to drive. I zipped around in one at U.C. Berkeley. It cranks up to freeway speeds rapidly; inadvertently I dusted a video van that was following us (see guilt-free driving video on this page.) It also holds four people and has room for suitcases.

Naturally, significant hurdles will have to be cleared before consumers start snapping up hydrogen cars. Chemical manufacturers will have to come up with ways to make hydrogen in a cost-effective manner that doesn't produce large amounts of carbon dioxide.

Filling stations will also have to be created. Cappa, in fact, said the company will determine where in Europe and North America to test the car by looking at where BP will erect hydrogen filling stations. (BP and Daimler are working together on hydrogen issues.) The test drivers, by the way, will be ordinary people, not professional drivers.

The cost of cars will also have to decline. Daimler Chrysler has already invested $1 billion into hydrogen technology, but the cars do work. Around 2 million miles have been logged on fuel cell vehicles to date, and that arguably has saved 100,000 gallons of gasoline.

And consumers shouldn't be too worried about exploding. After all, they now drive around in a vehicle containing several gallons of a flammable liquid.