Coalition's vehicle demo in California promotes fuel-cell technology

If you think hybrid cars are cool, try sitting behind the wheel of a fuel-cell vehicle.

If you think hybrid cars are cool, try sitting behind the wheel of a fuel-cell vehicle.

Orange County consumers can test-drive these cars of the future today at the Orange County Marketplace at the fairgrounds in Costa Mesa.

Fuel cells create energy by combining hydrogen and oxygen. Their only emission is water, so some auto companies and legislators believe the technology will help the environment and lessen the nation's dependence on foreign oil.

The event, sponsored by the California Fuel Cell Partnership, an industry-government collaboration to push fuel cells forward, is free and will include eight fuel-cell vehicles.

Manufacturers bringing vehicles to the event: DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Nissan, Toyota and Volkswagen.

This is the third year that the partnership has shown fuel-cell cars to the public, but it's the first time the group has stopped in Orange County.

"You can talk about it all you want, but you really have to experience it.

People are surprised to learn that these vehicles drive just like a regular car," said Philip Chizek, marketing manager for Ford, which is bringing its four-door Focus fuel-cell sedan to the event.

Consumers might notice a gentle hum, but the vehicles will be noticeably quieter than their gasoline-engine counterparts.

What's holding back the fuel-cell vehicle from the mass market?

"The cost needs to come down," said Alan Niedzwiecki, chief executive of Irvine-based Quantum Fuel Systems Technologies Worldwide.

The industry estimates that consumers might buy a fuel-cell vehicle in the $30,000 to $40,000 range.

Quantum doesn't make fuel cells, but it does build the ultra-lightweight tanks to store hydrogen, and the systems that allow the fuel cell to do its job.

It is currently working on converting a hybrid gasoline vehicle to run on hydrogen. It has orders for about 35 vehicles, which would go to several Southern California cities, including Santa Ana, and the U.S. Army.

Niedzwiecki thinks hybrids are a key steppingstone to future fuel-cell developments.

"Every time we put a hybrid on the road, auto manufacturers learn about their reliability and apply that to the next generation of technology," he said. "Hybrids will teach us something. It will be difficult to go back to a car that makes any noise." But exactly when consumers will see fuel-cell vehicles in the mainstream isn't clear.

Many manufacturers are talking about fuel-cell fleet vehicles ”“ what a city or government officials might use ”“ as early as 2007. But the big developments won't come until at least 2012, Niedzwiecki said.

Automakers, he said, are investing now. "They're launching brand-new vehicle platforms. That shows you something."

--Info: California Fuel Cell Partnership,