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Fast Times in New Jersey: Driving Mercedes' Hydrogen F-Cell

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Sascha Simon and the Mercedes F-Cell. (Jim Motavalli photo)The Palisades Parkway in New Jersey offers splendid vistas of the Hudson River, but I never thought I'd be speeding along it in a Mercedes-Benz F-Cell hydrogen car. Bruce Springsteen would have been piloting something with dual exhausts and a Jersey girl in the passenger seat.

Mercedes offered me the first long-distance, East Coast drive in this sleek alternative-fuel vehicle, and it was a beautiful day and a splendid opportunity to preview a program that at this point is aimed solely at California and Europe.

The F-Cell, with 240-mile range, 136 horsepower, a 100-kilowatt fuel cell built with Ballard and a 1.4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery backup, is based on the European B-Class Mercedes. We don't see that car in the U.S., but we should because it's a perfect size for a small family traveling in style. Americans evidently like their luxury cars bigger. Oh well.

Refueling the F-Cell takes three minutes, a big advantage over battery EVs. You could easily add hydrogen refueling to existing gas stations, because the experience is similar.

Driving one of these cars doesn't require a Ph.D. in the passenger seat. I had Mike Schweizer, an affable Jersey-ite and Benz powertrain expert. He just tossed me the keys and said go for it. I remember when driving one of these cars meant a quarter mile on a test track with nervous men in lab coats. Here's Schweizer explaining the car on video:


On the road, the F-Cell displayed excellent road manners--the concentration of the fuel cell and electric drivetrain below the passenger compartment gives the relatively narrow, tall car useful lower-body weight, which improves the handling. It reminded me of my ride in an all-electric A-Class Mercedes converted by Tesla, and indeed there are a lot of parallels. Fuel-cell vehicles are essentially electric cars with a little chemical factory in place of the battery pack, so it's not surprising that they display similar characteristics.

I threw the F-Cell into corners, and it stayed vertical and kept its composure. Early fuel-cell cars emitted a piercing compressor whine, but that's been dialed out. My car was quiet as a tomb or, of course, an electric car. Did I say it was an EV under the skin?

The F-Cell program is directed by Sascha Simon, the tall and angular German who handles advanced product planning at Mercedes-Benz USA. He says the car I drove is "the culmination of 15 years of research and a $2 billion investment." The program has included Citaro fuel-cell buses, including the examples I've encountered in both Germany and Iceland. The latest generation, which doubles fuel efficiency, debuted in 2009, and is on the streets of Hamburg and other German cities.

The program includes just 200 cars, which Simon said are likely to be evenly split between Europe and California. The first five to 15 folks are expected to get cars by the end of the year--if you live in the Golden State, you can apply at www.mbusa.com/fcell. Deliveries will continue through 2011, with cars handed out every month. It helps if you live near one of the existing stations. The car isn't free, but Mercedes says the lease price will be "competitive." The F-Cell will be on display at the Los Angeles Auto Show next month.

The F-Cell has a 240-mile cruising range. (Jim Motavalli photo)Two hundred cars doth not a production program make, but the car in its current form is production-intent. "It's not a prototype," Simon said. "It's been optimized for manufacturing on a line, which is the first step to mass production."

If Mercedes isn't launching the F-Cell yet, it's not because the car isn't ready for prime time - it's the infrastructure that isn't there yet. The car is going to California because there's an embryonic network of stations there, and the California Energy Commission just approved funding for 19 more of them that will be in place by 2012.

Hydrogen stations cost at least $1 million each, so there's a reason they aren't on every corner. The East Coast "Hydrogen Highway," which will stretch from Maine to Florida, is funded privately by entrepreneur Tom Sullivan of Lumber Liquidators. It's his station in Connecticut that will be refueling my test Toyota Highlander fuel-cell car. The next one is in Braintree, Massachusetts, right in Car Talk's backyard.

Simon says that a lot of my auto scribe compatriots like to say that hydrogen is dead. "It's not dead!" he said indignantly. "In my view it's the only long-term solution that can provide zero emission for the smallest urban vehicles to the heaviest trucks." He has a point there--nobody is saying with a straight face that there's a battery solution on the horizon for the heavy diesel semi-trailers that were just ordered to clean up their fuel economy/greenhouse gas act by the Obama administration.

The scalability of fuel cells, Simon said, "is being lost in all the hype about plug-in hybrids." He points out that batteries has much less energy density than gasoline, but hydrogen offers triple its density. Definitely true, but hydrogen has other challenges: It's expensive to produce (about $7 to $8 per kilogram, roughly equivalent to a gallon). The stations (and the cars themselves) are expensive. And because it's the lightest element, hydrogen doesn't much like to be transported. Truck it and you can't carry a whole lot, pipeline it and it leaks. Hydrogen will be a locally produced fuel.

Those issues have delayed fuel-cell cars from the market. Daimler's Fuel-Cell House in Nabern (near Stuttgart) had confidently predicted that the company would have 40,000 hydrogen cars on the road in 2004, but high costs--and cheap gas--have delayed the programs. Now a number of manufacturers, including Honda, Toyota and GM, are looking to 2015 as the start of commercialization. I can't wait.

As I was prepared to press "send," I got an email saying that the venerable U.S. Fuel Cell Council and the National Hydrogen Association are merging into a new entity called the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association (FCHEA), based in Washington. That makes sense. In unity there is strength.
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