On the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it will move away from hydrogen fuel cell
funding came an invitation from Volkswagen to visit the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento, CA and test drive one of their fuel cell prototypes.
Well, why not?
VW has been developing fuel cells since 1998, and has been a member of the California Fuel Cell Partnership since 2000. John Tillman, Program Manager of Volkswagen’s Advanced Powertrain Research Program, has worked closely with the vehicles since the inception of VW’s fuel cell program. He is positive that they have “solved a lot of the problems from back in 2000.” Though he admits “fuel cell durability is still a challenge.”
VW’s fuel cell efforts are stored under the sticker-emblazoned sheet metal of Chinese-spec Passat Lingyus, built primarily for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The automaker essentially gave scientists at Tongji University in China free rein over these cars to create, implement and refine the fuel cell components within them. Relinquishing control seems to have worked: All 22 of the Passat Lingyus are roadworthy, with a range of 186 miles per hydrogen top-up.
The specific vehicles we were able to get into contain a fuel cell stack that produces 55 kW of power. Other prototypes have been modified to deliver up to 85-90 kW, but as Tillman mentioned durability tends to be an issue with fuel cells. When a vehicle houses a smaller battery
to accommodate for the larger fuel cell, the fuel cell ends up powering the drive for a longer period of time, causing it to break down more quickly.
So, does a hydrogen-powered Passat drive like the future? It’s no DeLorean time machine, but it’s pretty close. Electric cars are silent and clean diesels have that subtle, torquey burble, but the fuel cell vehicle whirred gently down the road, making the occasional noise that sounded eerily similar to carnival ride hydraulics. With all the whirring and buzzing, it was futuristic indeed.
If we want to nit-pick, the air conditioning can’t be turned on unless you find repetitive grinding from the electric motor soothing, and the vibrations from the fuel cell, which spans the entire length of the cabin, transmit into the seats. Think of it as driving with surround sound. Undoubtedly, the engineers are more concerned with fuel cell durability than the odd noise and burp here and there.
Obama may want focus turned toward more seemingly viable fueling options, but those at VW – and many other automakers – think that research into this technology is still an important aspect of alternative fuel development. At minimum, programs like VW’s allow technology to trickle down to other green departments. Their hydrogen car batteries, for example, are used in the hybrids they are bringing to market next year. It’s Reaganomics at its most environmental.
The biggest challenge for all automakers working on this type of technology, one that remains the elephant in the room, is the lack of infrastructure required to support a hydrogen-based production vehicle – a conundrum that played a large part in the funding cuts recently announced. As it stands, there are no financial benefits to building hydrogen fueling stations now, but without them, any potential production vehicles are unlikely to gain momentum in the market.
Quite the chicken and the egg situation, acknowledges Tillman. He sees no other way to develop the infrastructure unless the government gets involved somehow and subsidizes the building of the stations. Considering that it just pulled its support, a plan B might be in order.
There’s obviously a long way to go yet for fuel cells, and the question of their viability if they ever become ready remains. Tillman believes that we’re at least one generation away from getting these vehicles to production-ready levels, and after our test drive we’d heartily agree. Still, automakers and the people who have devoted years of their lives to this technology aren’t ready to give up on it. We can’t yet know for sure whether their efforts will have been for naught.