End to Energy Woes Seen in Fuel Cell Cars

LOS ANGELES -- You would never guess that Jon Spallino drives what is probably the most expensive car in this city known for automotive excess. Or that he is the world's most technologically advanced commuter.

"When the cars pull up to me, the Porsches and the Bentleys and all that, I just sort of say, well, that's nice, but for what this costs I could buy 10 of those," said Spallino, while driving up the Interstate 405 freeway.

He was at the wheel of his silver Honda FCX, a car worth about $1 million that looks like a cross between a compact -- say, a Volkswagen Golf -- and a cinder block. The FCX is powered by hydrogen fuel cells, the futuristic technology that many automakers see as an eventual solution to the world's energy woes.

The Spallino family has been leasing the FCX for $500 a month since July in one of the more unusual experiments in the auto industry's history. They "aren't just the first fuel cell family on their block," as one Honda ad recently put it. "They're the first in the world."

So grandiose is the experiment that Honda has made arrangements with a distributor of hydrogen to have a refueling station built near the Spallinos' house.

Not that they can use it.

The local fire department, wary of this elemental zeppelin gas, has yet to let the station open. So the car is being refueled at Honda's U.S. headquarters in Torrance. Honda is also working on upgrading an existing station that is near Spallino's office, and California is financing refueling stations to form what is called a "hydrogen highway" in the state.

Honda has been a pioneer in bringing advanced technologies, like hybrid electric cars, to consumers. While every major automaker has built a fuel cell prototype, Honda's is the only one that has been crash-tested.

Cars powered by fuel cells are electric cars that do not rely on batteries, but instead generate their own electricity. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction, with water vapor as their only emission, at least from the tailpipe.

General Motors is most bullish on the technology.

"We're going to prove to ourselves and the world that a fuel cell propulsion system can go head to head with the internal combustion engine," said Lawrence Burns, GM's vice president in charge of research and development.

He said that by 2010, GM will have designed a fuel cell car that can go as far on a full tank and is as durable as a gasoline car.

Knight said that it was "too hard to put a date on" the timing for large-scale production.

"We see this, right now, as the most promising technology to lower greenhouse gas," he said.

In his State of the Union address in 2003, U.S. President George W. Bush said there would be "a new national commitment" to developing hydrogen technology, which would "make our air significantly cleaner, and our country much less dependent on foreign sources of energy."