As the communications coordinator for EERE's Clean Cities program, I'm always on the lookout for interesting stories about alternative fuel vehicles. So when my church pastor, Todd Thomas, mentioned that he'd soon be driving a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, it caught my attention. What a unique opportunity! Luckily, he was more than willing to sit down with me and describe his experiences.
From September to October 2009, Todd participated in Project Driveway, a Chevrolet fuel cell vehicle pilot program. Fuel cell vehicles run on hydrogen, the simplest and most abundant element in the universe. The hydrogen is produced using electricity or biomass and is then pumped into the vehicle. While driving, the vehicle's fuel cell creates electricity, powering the motor. The fuel cell process is two to three times more efficient than combustion and only emits water vapor. Todd first became interested in the technology after reading an interview in Wired magazine with the CEO of General Motors. Recognizing its environmental and social benefits, Todd said, "I was fired up about the technology."
Fortunately, he would soon get his chance to participate. Not long after reading the article, Todd's family moved to the Washington, D.C. area, one of the test locations. He filled out an online questionnaire and several months later received an invitation to carry out a five-minute test drive. In July 2009, they gave him the thumbs-up and he received his truck two months later.
Todd generally enjoyed participating in the program. "Getting to experience the vehicle was really great. As a vehicle, as a system, it is really viable," he said. He used it as his primary vehicle, driving everywhere from rural Maryland to downtown D.C.
As he drove the truck around, people had a variety of responses. He brought it to his sons' schools and answered questions from the students. When he drove to a chiropractic appointment, his chiropractor insisted everyone from the office come out to see it! Even while he was stopped at traffic lights, pedestrians passing by would ask him questions.
Many people held misconceptions that Todd took the opportunity to correct. "Most everyone thought it was supposed to run on water," he said. They also wondered if the technology negatively affected the acceleration and power of the vehicle. Contrary to their expectations, Todd said, "It was a nimble truck. [It] handled well and responded well."
As he regularly rides an electric scooter, he was already used to the lack of a transmission or lag. Of course, many people's final question was: "When will it be available?" He said people seemed annoyed that they saw it out on the street and couldn't buy it themselves! Unfortunately, fuel cell vehicles are still extremely expensive to manufacture.
Despite the positive experience, Todd did run into a few snags, particularly with fueling. Even though he lives in Maryland, he generally didn't mind having to drive to Virginia or into DC to fuel. (To find alternative fueling stations near you, check out the Alternative Fuel Station Locator.)
However, he did become frustrated when he drove to these locations and the fuel pump was broken. There were several times when he showed up and it would be out of order or could only provide him with a half a tank. "The infrastructure has got to come a long way before it is ready," he said. In addition, he felt that the average consumer may not accept the truck's low 210 mile driving range.
In general, Todd said he was thrilled to participate and would definitely sign up for a similar project in the future. In particular, he liked the opportunity to contribute to the greater good. His try-out provided General Motors with both mechanical and personal, human feedback on the vehicle.
If you are interested in working with manufacturers to launch new alternative fuel vehicles, there are a variety of programs available. BMW recently finished a limited field trial of its MiniE electric vehicle in Los Angeles and the New York/New Jersey metro area. They hope to launch a trial in 2011 of a new electric model called the BMW Concept ActiveE. Similarly, Nissan is looking to release its all-electric Leaf in limited markets later this year. Consumers who sign up for their mailing list can indicate if they would like to participate in testing.
Overall, Todd said that he strongly recommends anyone who has the chance, should take the opportunity to participate in a similar program.
Shannon Brescher Shea is the communications coordinator for Clean Cities in the Vehicle Technologies Program of EERE.