AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai recently announced that they're planning to build hydrogen-powered cars in the next few years. These cars could rival all electric and plug-ins as cleaner alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. NPR's Richard Harris took a drive in a hydrogen car to learn about the advantages and drawbacks of the technology.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: First, the good news about these cars: Hydrogen gas can be really clean. Keith Wipke at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado says run hydrogen gas through a device called a fuel cell and you will produce electricity and water. That's it.
KEITH WIPKE: So they are essentially zero emission vehicles just like a battery electric, but you have the added benefit of three-minute refueling and 300, 400 mile range.
HARRIS: And speaking of which, we are standing in the garage right now.
WIPKE: We have four of these vehicles. I need to find the right one. Oh, there it is. So when I start this up, it's going to be dripping water.
HARRIS: We hop into a white SUV which is plastered with graphics to draw attention to the fact that this isn't your grandpa's station wagon.
WIPKE: So this vehicle is a Toyota Highlander and it's called the FCHV ADV.
HARRIS: We pull out of the garage and onto the street. Wipke presses the gas pedal, well, the accelerator and we surge forward.
WIPKE: Pretty quiet. I don't think your mic will pick up much there.
HARRIS: Indeed. It is kind of eerie.
HARRIS: What is your feel from having been behind the wheel of it?
WIPKE: I love the quietness. I love the power and I love knowing that there's no emissions coming from the vehicle. In our case, there's no emissions going into the fuel.
HARRIS: This federally-funded lab uses wind and solar power to generate electricity, which, in turn, is used to produce hydrogen gas. But mostly in the United States, hydrogen is generated from natural gas and that process does emit carbon dioxide so it's not necessarily a squeaky clean fuel. As we merge onto the highway, Wipke says they've done road tests to measure the efficiency and range of this vehicle.
WIPKE: We drove actually 330 miles and there was enough hydrogen left in the tank to go another 100 miles so that gave us a calculated value of, like, 430 miles on one tank of hydrogen fuel.
HARRIS: And in terms of price comparison with gasoline?
WIPKE: It should come out about a wash in terms of the energy costs to fuel your vehicle.
HARRIS: So do you get to drive this home at night?
WIPKE: No. We don't drive these vehicles home.
WIPKE: Although I would feel safe with my kids in the back. I've got three girls and I have no reservations about safety.
HARRIS: The hydrogen gas is stored in tough carbon-fiber tanks, he says, and if they rupture, the gas is likely to dissipate quickly, unlike gasoline which can form flammable puddles. After a peppy jaunt on the freeway, we head back to the garage to return this expensive experimental vehicle to its parking spot.
WIPKE: That's my backing in skills.
HARRIS: The question now is not whether the technology can work. Clearly, it can. But whether it will ever become anything other than a novelty...
JOAN OGDEN: Well, I think we'll start to see them on the roads.
HARRIS: Joan Ogden at UC Davis has been following the long saga of hydrogen vehicles for many years and she says there has been a lot of hype about this technology.
OGDEN: With alternative fueled vehicles, there tend to be these waves of enthusiasm that sweep over that last for a little while. Like my colleague Dan Sperling calls it the fuel de jour syndrome.
HARRIS: Hydrogen has up and down along with ethanol vehicles, hybrids and plug-ins.
OGDEN: That aside, there's been steady technological progress and what's maybe just as important or more important even is that the car industry has been developing fuel cell cars into really attractive and good performing vehicles.
HARRIS: The bad news, and this could be a showstopper, is how expensive it would be to build hydrogen fuel stations everywhere. California is subsidizing some for cars in a few cities, but scaling that up nationally would cost a bundle and she says that's only likely to happen if we start to put a price on carbon pollution. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.