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Hydrogen on the Highway: Driving a Fuel-Cell Car

The passenger cabin of the Honda FCX looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Jon Spallino can travel until he has to refuel.
Scott Horsley, NPR
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The passenger cabin of the Honda FCX looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Jon Spallino can travel until he has to refuel.

Hydrogen power may be in the distant future for America, but it's making the wheels of Jon Spallino's Honda zip down southern California's freeways now.

For the last few months, Jon Spallino and his family have been test-driving a prototype of a fuel-cell car that runs on hydrogen. Spallino says there's no sacrifice in handling, acceleration, comfort or convenience. The Honda FCX cruises up to 80 miles per hour, when traffic permits.

The passenger cabin looks like any other, except for the large gauge on the dashboard that counts down the miles Spallino can travel until he has to refuel. That's important because while hydrogen is abundant, hydrogen filling stations are not.

When Spallino runs low on fuel, he typically fills up at Honda's North American headquarters in Torrance, Calif. It's one of only about two-dozen hydrogen stations around the country.

Building that network is just one of the challenges facing fuel-cell cars. Honda's Stephen Ellis says the company also has to find ways to make the cars travel more than 190 miles between fill-ups, to extend the life of the fuel cells, and to bring the sticker price down -- way down. The custom-built Honda is worth about $1 million, but Spallino leases it for $500 per month. In exchange for the discount, the automaker gets Spallino's feedback on the vehicle.

So far, Spallino's had almost no complaints. He would like to see a four-door model. And he notes the built-in eyeglass holder is too small to hold his sunglasses.

Honda's not the only automaker experimenting with fuel cells. General Motors, Ford, Toyota and others also have developed prototypes. But Honda's fuel-cell car is the first to be crash-tested and put in the hands of an ordinary consumer.

Given the attention Spallino's car gets on the roads of southern California, it would appear people are curious about the technology. "I get a lot of interested looks and comments from people not only at the office but at the soccer field and in the grocery market parking lot," he says.

"I get people asking me to roll down the windows and saying, 'Are those for sale?' 'Can I buy one of those?'"

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.