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Driving the Distance

At 8:30am on a rainy, chilly Thursday morning, CaFCP’s Nico Bouwkamp pulled out of the parking lot bound for Richmond, a city just outside San Francisco. Nico could have taken his own car, but instead decided to drive the Toyota FCHV-adv fuel cell vehicle that Toyota loans to CaFCP. He was heading for a conference about zero-emissions vehicles, and driving a FCV shows that we walk the talk.

What’s the big deal about driving to Richmond and back? It’s a 140-mile round trip and Nico had less than half a tank of hydrogen. Once in Richmond, he had no way to fill the tank before coming to Sacramento. Was Nico worried about running out of fuel? No—he even gave test drives in Richmond.

The round trip used about two kilograms of hydrogen, the equivalent of two gallons of gasoline, and only one-third of the FCHV-adv’s 6kg tank. On a full tank, the Toyota can drive more than 400 miles—from Sacramento to Los Angeles. (Soon we will have two stations to use in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means we can drive to Monterey or up the coast to Mendocino.) 

During his drive, Nico used the headlights, windshield wipers and climate control system. He also played the radio and used the vehicle’s built-in GPS. Electric vehicles used to see decreased range on a day like Thursday. Thanks to improved energy storage, increased efficiency and better power management, electric vehicles (battery and fuel cell) have more energy available for auxiliary systems. Using any of the components—or sitting still in a traffic jam—does not significantly impact range. Storage, efficiency and power management are areas where automakers’ R&D benefits fuel cell, battery and hybrid vehicles. And some of those systems are making their way into traditional combustion vehicles.

On Nico’s trip, however, he didn’t sit in a traffic jam. Because fuel cell vehicles are zero-emission vehicles, they are eligible for HOV stickers. “Eco-bling” on the vehicle’s bumper let Nico breeze through the congestion in Fairfield and Vallejo on his way to Richmond. And, of course, he didn’t add to the haze of smog that often hangs over the Sacramento Valley.

The best part of driving an FCV isn’t the range, fuel efficiency, zero pollution or HOV access. The best part is the quietness. Without the noise and vibration of a combustion engine and transmission, driving an electric vehicle is like gliding. It feels effortless and peaceful. The only sound you hear is the hum of tires on pavement. It’s easy to imagine what our world will sound like in 30 years when most of the vehicles on the road are electric.