Last week I had the opportunity to drive Ford's latest hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Based on a Focus sedan, it was remarkable for being unremarkable in operation during my maybe 5-mile test drive on city streets. The interior was devoid of the obviously added-in cables, specialized instrumentation, and switches of an engineering prototype, and the car was exceptionally smooth in operation--not surprising, considering that with an electric motor, a transmission is not required. It wasn't completely quiet, as the compressor for the fuel cell's hydrogen system made a whine like a jet engine on the taxiway, but that was not particularly loud or annoying, and actually added to the future-tech experience.
An electric motor makes its maximum amount of torque as soon as it starts to rotate, which means excellent acceleration characteristics, especially for city driving. Regenerative braking, also used in hybrids, increases braking efficiency while recharging the battery pack--and yes, fuel-cell vehicles generally use battery packs, both to store excess energy and have an extra source for use when needed. Driving the fuel cell Focus was no different from driving a gasoline-electric hybrid like an Escape Hybrid or Toyota Prius, except, of course, that there was no internal combustion engine starting and stopping at any time. So it was a little smoother, and even quieter. Such a car would make an excellent commute vehicle. There was plenty of power available for any driving necessity at the under-40 mph speeds attained during the test drive.
If you're wondering when Ford will have a fuel cell vehicle for sale, or even beta-test lease, don't hold your breath. As refined and civilized as the fuel cell Focus sedan was, it's merely the latest in a long line of experimental vehicles. Fuel cells are still expensive items, and the hydrogen storage tank is prohibitively expensive, made of machined aluminum several inches thick, then covered with carbon-fiber mesh for further protection and containment if, somehow, a hole was made in the aluminum. Plus, as the Ford representative said, emergency crews need to be trained to deal with hydrogen-vehicle accidents. Ford is seeing to that, as is the California Fuel Cell Partnership.
Ford is on the conservative end of the fuel cell spectrum while Honda is aggressive, with leased Clarity FCXes running around Los Angeles right now. But while Honda is undoubtedly learning much about the real-world behavior and usefulness of fuel cell vehicles with the Clarity program, the cynic in me would bet that the $600/month lease cost comes nowhere near paying for the production, let alone R&D, costs. When the Toyota FCHV was shown at Challenge Bibendum at Sears Point/Infineon Raceway back in 2003, a company spokesman mentioned that it was a "million-dollar" vehicle. Questioned as to how that figure was arrived at, he candidly replied the the number was essentially pulled out of a hat because "no vehicle accounting system can tell the truth because there are so many variables," according to my notes from that time.
The fuel cell Focus is far from Ford's first attempt. It's not even the first Ford fuel cell vehicle I've driven. That honor goes to a much rougher engineering prototype, based, if I recall correctly, also on a Focus, back when the California Fuel Cell Partnership facility in West Sacramento opened in 2000. That car was chock-full of cables, instrumentation, switches, and Ford engineers. It ran, but the newer model has more power, runs more smoothly, and runs for longer distances. Even then, the most optimistic estimate of fuel cell vehicle availability was eight to ten years, and then for experimental fleet use. And here we are, as the Honda Clarity fleet is really still an experimental one, not the first, and unlikely to be the last. A refueling infrastructure is necessary, and that, too, is slowly developing.
Fuel cells are not exactly new technology. The idea has been around since the 1830s, with functional examples first used more than 100 years later, in the late 1950s. NASA's Gemini and Apollo space capsules had fuel cells for electrical power, as do the space shuttles. NASA's budget is a little bigger than yours...and a fuel cell was the best solution for that application. The water produced as a byproduct is astronaut drinking water.
Will fuel cells be the power of the future, or will new developments in battery technology make them a technological dead end? Interesting times...