When lifelong car enthusiast Raoul Renaud test drove a Honda Clarity Fuel Cell back in 2016, he just knew he had to have one.
For nearly five years he’d endured the limitations of battery cars – the less than 100-mile range, the slow charging and the small size – and the hydrogen car in front of him solved all these problems, promising 300+ mile range and five-minute refuelling.
“Moving to a fuel cell car was a no brainer,” the retired former California Energy Commission attorney tells H2 View. “With hydrogen, your behaviour doesn’t change.”
“You don’t have to figure out how to charge your car at home overnight and if you’re at work in the middle of the day and something comes up where suddenly you need to drive some distance, you don’t need to wait an hour or so while your car recharges at a ‘quick’ charger.”
“With hydrogen, you refuel at a gas station, like you would with gasoline, it takes five minutes, and then off you go for another 300 or more miles.”
Renaud, 67, lives in California, where today there are currently 40 hydrogen stations and more than 6,000 fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), and ambitious goals for this to be 1,000 stations and a million FCEVs by 2030.
The foundations for such a vision were laid by former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger back in 2004, when he turned up to the opening of the state’s first commercial hydrogen fuelling station at Los Angeles International Airport in a hydrogen-powered Hummer, revealing plans to build a network of hydrogen stations in California.
Thanks to the California Energy Commission and the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CaFCP), Arnold Schwarzenegger’s ‘Hydrogen highway’ dream is very much becoming a reality.
“The CaFCP has worked tirelessly to keep former governor Schwarzenegger’s dream alive and growing, and Jerry Brown, who served as governor of California until the start of 2019, also worked to keep the hydrogen dream going through his policies. That legislature has built funding for hydrogen stations into several statutes,” Renaud highlights.
“California’s network of 40 stations sounds small, but the stations are placed so current fuel cell cars can travel everywhere in the state, except some remote areas north and east.”
“You still have to travel several miles sometimes to refuel and you have to plan where to refuel so you are sure you’ll be able to get there, but no other state has any sort of hydrogen fuelling network.”
Renaud is a passionate advocate for zero emission vehicles and hasn’t driven anything else since the advent of the Nissan Leaf in 2011.
He currently drives a 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, which he’s had for two years and has driven roughly 25,000 miles. Honda offers a three-year lease that includes fuel and an annual allowance of 20,000 miles, for $400 a month.
“I love cars in general and have owned many, including some very nice ones such as a BMW, but the Clarity Fuel Cell is my favourite. It has abundant power from its electric motor, it’s sleek and luxurious, unbelievably quiet and smooth on the road and it refuels in a few minutes.”
“The ownership experience is like owning a luxury car, except that the cost is far less. $400 a month normally gets you a very average sedan, nothing interesting, and that doesn’t include fuel.”
“The only drawback is the immaturity and lack of redundancy of the fuelling network. Although the stations are well placed, if a station goes down it can limit your movement. Since you are dependent on the stations being operational, there’s always a bit of suspense as you head towards one, hoping that it will function properly.”
After two years of driving a hydrogen car, Renaud says he has no concerns whatsoever about safety: “Gasoline cars catch fire and burn to the ground every day. The hydrogen system is literally bulletproof. If there is a leak, hydrogen instantly dissipates, rather than forming an explosive puddle around the wrecked vehicle you may be trapped in.”
As for hydrogen refuelling, he finds it preferable to gasoline because of the positive attachment of the nozzle to the car.
“Gasoline nozzles fit loosely and won’t work or may actually come off the car if you don’t get it right. Everyone I demonstrate the hydrogen refuelling to agrees with me that it’s preferable to gasoline.”
Something Renaud says could be improved is awareness: “Most people I talk to about my car seem surprised to learn that fuel cell cars are available – it sounds too futuristic.”
“Unfortunately, only a few dealers are authorised to sell/lease fuel cell cars. If there were a fuel cell car in the showroom of most new car dealers, the awareness would grow tremendously.”
“Additional body styles would generate interest too. Hyundai’s FCEV (the Nexo) is a mid-sized SUV and that body style is really popular here, more so than sedans. I think a pick up FCEV would be widely accepted.”
Renaud notes there has been some animosity between advocates of fuel cell versus battery cars, resulting in some negative publicity for zero emission vehicles in general.
“It seems that the press is often more interested by stories about how someone was let down by their zero emission vehicle, rather than the millions of trips that are taken in them without incident,” he says.
“Let one Tesla catch fire and it’s front-page news. 150 gasoline cars catch fire every day and that’s not reported? Nevermind, they laughed at ‘horseless carriages’ too, didn’t they?”
Renaud hopes that as the fuel cell population grows and the fuelling network matures, it will become clear that both types of zero emission vehicles – fuel cell and battery – will be needed.
“While we need all types of zero emission vehicles, the establishment of a robust hydrogen fuelling network has the strongest likelihood of persuading motorists to switch to a zero emission vehicle.”
“For fuel cell car drivers, their transportation lives will continue with almost no change in behaviour. That is the key to rapid transition to zero emission transportation.”
In part two of this exclusive three-part series, H2 View goes behind the wheel of another hydrogen fuel cell car with Lawrence Livermoor National Laboratory Scientist Tadashi Ogitsu. Read it here.