Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car 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.
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Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car

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Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car

Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car

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OK. Now imagine how heads would turn if you pulled up to the office in a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari. Well, a Southern California man is commuting in a car that is even more expensive than those. His name John Spallino. He and his family have been test-driving a prototype of a fuel cell car that runs on hydrogen. It's a custom-build Honda FCX, and it is worth about $1 million. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

SCOTT HORSLEY reporting:

The Southern California sun is barely up when John Spallino gets behind the wheel of his silver hatchback for the 37-mile drive to his office with a construction firm in Orange County.

Mr. JOHN SPALLINO: All right. Away we go.

HORSLEY: The electric motor purrs as Spallino slips it into gear. He doesn't seem worried by the crush of morning traffic on the 405 Freeway or what those other California drivers might do to his million-dollar car.

Mr. SPALLINO: Not at all. It makes my wife a little nervous sometimes, but it doesn't bother me a bit. I drive it the same way I do any other car.

HORSLEY: The driver's seat is high up, like an SUV's, because Spallino is sitting on the fuel cells. The car shows plenty of zip as he weaves over to the car-pool lane cruising up to 80 miles an hour in those rare moments when traffic permits.

Mr. SPALLINO: We're not making any sacrifices. No sacrifice in handling or acceleration or comfort or convenience or amenities, CD player and all those things.

HORSLEY: 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.

(Soundbite of Spallino pumping gas)

HORSLEY: When Spallino runs low on fuel, he typically fills up here at Honda's North American headquarters in Torrance, California. 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 car go more than 190 miles between fill-ups to extend the life of the fuel cells and to bring the sticker price down--way down.

Mr. STEPHEN ELLIS (Honda): This a industry truly in its infancy. I mean, you know, we've had a hundred years to get the internal combustion vehicle right, and it's tremendous what kind of gains we've made there. Those same type of gains need to occur with fuel cell vehicles.

HORSLEY: Honda's not the only automaker experimenting with fuel cells. GM, Ford, Toyota and others have also developed prototypes. But Honda's fuel cell car is the first to be crash-tested and put in the hands of an ordinary consumer. Stickers on the outside make the car a rolling billboard for Honda technology, and Spallino is enjoying his role as part of the world's first fuel cell family.

Mr. SPALLINO: 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. I get people asking me to roll down the windows and say, `Hey, you know, where--you know, are those for sale? Are those available? Can I buy one of those?'

HORSLEY: Spallino is leasing his car for two years, paying $500 a month. By making him pay for the car, Honda expects better feedback. 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. When his lease runs out, Spallino says he'll look around at whatever cars are available. He'd like to see fuel cell vehicles at the dealership, but neither he nor Honda can say for sure when that will happen.

Mr. SPALLINO: I would love to see it tomorrow, but it's not realistic. What I see as the point here is that we have to figure out if it's a viable technology or not, and that has to start somewhere. And I'm feeling like I can be part of starting that. And if that gets us to a point where we find out it's not viable, I still think that's progress because we can go on to something else.

HORSLEY: Arriving at his office, Spallino backs into a shady but otherwise unremarkable parking space and quietly turns the key on his million-dollar ride. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Los Angeles.

INSKEEP: Even if you don't have a million dollars, you can see what makes the Honda FCX go for free at npr.org.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne.

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