Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car

The Spallino family and the Honda FCX i

The Spallino family of Los Angeles has been test-driving a Honda FCX, powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Jon commutes with the car to Orange County, and his wife Sandy uses it to ferry their daughters to school, soccer and ballet. Honda hide caption

itoggle caption Honda
The Spallino family and the Honda FCX

The Spallino family of Los Angeles has been test-driving a Honda FCX, powered by hydrogen fuel cells. Jon commutes with the car to Orange County, and his wife Sandy uses it to ferry their daughters to school, soccer and ballet.

Honda
Fuel cell car diagram i

The car's motor runs on electricity generated by a hydrogen fuel cell located under the seats. High-pressure hydrogen tanks are located in the rear. Water is generated as a byproduct, and some of it is used for humidification. Honda Diagram hide caption

itoggle caption Honda Diagram
Fuel cell car diagram

The car's motor runs on electricity generated by a hydrogen fuel cell located under the seats. High-pressure hydrogen tanks are located in the rear. Water is generated as a byproduct, and some of it is used for humidification.

Honda Diagram
Jon Spallino, behind the wheel of his Honda FCX i

The passenger cabin of the Honda FCX looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Jon Spallino can travel until he has to refuel. Scott Horsley, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Horsley, NPR
Jon Spallino, behind the wheel of his Honda FCX

The passenger cabin of the Honda FCX looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Jon Spallino can travel until he has to refuel.

Scott Horsley, NPR

Hydrogen power may be in the distant future for America, but it's making the wheels of Jon Spallino's Honda zip down southern California's freeways now.

For the last few months, Jon Spallino and his family have been test-driving a prototype of a fuel-cell car that runs on hydrogen. Spallino says there's no sacrifice in handling, acceleration, comfort or convenience. The Honda FCX cruises up to 80 miles per hour, when traffic permits.

The passenger cabin looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Spallino can travel until he has to refuel. That's important because while hydrogen is abundant, hydrogen filling stations are not.

When Spallino runs low on fuel, he typically fills up at Honda's North American headquarters in Torrance, Calif. It's one of only about two-dozen hydrogen stations around the country.

Building that network is just one of the challenges facing fuel-cell cars. Honda's Stephen Ellis says the company also has to find ways to make the cars travel more than 190 miles between fill-ups, to extend the life of the fuel cells, and to bring the sticker price down — way down. The custom-built Honda is worth about $1 million, but Spallino leases it for $500 per month. In exchange for the discount, the automaker gets Spallino's feedback on the vehicle.

So far, Spallino's had almost no complaints. He would like to see a four-door model. And he notes the built-in eyeglass holder is too small to hold his sunglasses.

Honda's not the only automaker experimenting with fuel cells. General Motors, Ford, Toyota and others also have developed prototypes. But Honda's fuel-cell car is the first to be crash-tested and put in the hands of an ordinary consumer.

Given the attention Spallino's car gets on the roads of southern California, it would appear people are curious about the technology. "I get a lot of interested looks and comments from people not only at the office but at the soccer field and in the grocery market parking lot," he says.

"I get people asking me to roll down the windows and saying, 'Are those for sale?' 'Can I buy one of those?'"

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