Don't expect to see fuel cell cars on the roads this decade.
General Motors (GM) Corp. has said it wants to develop a commercially viable fuel cell vehicle by 2010. But a panel of experts at the Electric Drive Transportation Association conference, held in late September in Orlando, said the technology won't be ready for at least 15 years.
``The science is not there yet,'' said Bill Reinert, a senior systems engineer for Toyota Motor Corp., who works on hybrid and fuel cell vehicles.
Ethan Brown, industry and government affairs adviser for Ballard Power Systems Inc., a fuel cell supplier and research company, said the electricity that fuel cells produce is still too expensive to make them competitive with gasoline-powered engines.
The cost needs to come down to about $50 per kilowatt hour, and no auto maker has said it is near that level.
The panel outlined these hurdles:
* Fuel. The nation has no energy policy that calls for the creation of a system to produce and distribute hydrogen. Without one, there would be no way to replace gasoline because drivers could not refuel their fuel cell-powered cars. GM has estimated that it will cost at least $400 billion to equip the nation's gasoline stations with a hydrogen pump.
* Safety. To get cars to travel between 200 and 400 miles per tank of hydrogen, stronger, safer tanks must be made.
* Standards. There is no single set of standards that governs how hydrogen can be put into a vehicle. There also are no standards to address the technical aspects of the electric powertrain. The experts say a single set of standards would let engineers and suppliers cut development time of components. ``If the U.S. really wanted to get serious, a uniform set of codes and standards needs to be adopted,'' Mr. Reinert said.
* Technology and materials cost. Auto makers do not have the facilities to mass produce fuel cells. Even if they did, the precious metals needed to produce fuel cells would make them too expensive for consumers. Engineers have to make fuel cells that are smaller, produce more power, work in cold temperatures and require cheaper materials.
Jaime Levin, an official with the Alameda-Contra Costa, Calif., Transit System, said he believes government-owned fleets and municipal bus systems will drive the creation of hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Mr. Levin said that city buses are the perfect test vehicles for hydrogen technology because of their constant use and heavy loads.
He also said buses could be a great way to get consumers used to the technology.
Consumers will not accept hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars if they have to give up performance, said Gunnar Lindstrom, senior manager for alternative fueled vehicles for American Honda Motor Co. Inc.
``We need to have cars that people truly enjoy,'' he said.
Added Mr. Reiner: ``If we had something like the Apollo project for fuel cells, clearly, we would get there quicker. It's like a disease where you know the cure.''