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NEW CLEAN, QUIET CARS GUZZLE HYDROGEN
By Jeordan Legon
Thursday, October 10, 2002
(CNN) -- They don't use gasoline or electricity, but these new Honda and
Mercedes-Benz cars can whiz by at speeds up to 93 mph.
The new fuel cell cars are powered by hydrogen, the most abundant element in
the universe, and they are pollution and noise free.
The mayor of smog-choked Los Angeles, Jim Hahn, likes them so much he signed
a lease with Honda this week that will put city employees behind the wheel
of five of the experimental cars by year's end.
"Hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles hold great promise for future clean air
vehicles," Hahn said in a press release. "It's important that Los Angeles
play a leading role in development and early use of this technology."
Not to be outdone, DaimlerChrysler also announced this week the production
of a fleet of Mercedes-Benz A-Class cars in the U.S. and Europe. Like
Honda's cars, the DaimlerChrysler cars get their power from compressed
hydrogen, which mixes with oxygen to create electricity.
But finding a fueling station won't be easy. Companies who agree to use
Mercedes-Benzes' 60 fuel cell cars will also have to install
hydrogen-filling stations, and a Honda spokesman said his company plans a
mobile refueling unit.
Honda's fuel cell vehicle can reach speeds of 93 mph.
If all that compressed hydrogen sounds dangerous, DaimlerChrysler spokesman
Max Gates offered some reassurance.
"The engineering has been done with the fuel tanks to ensure their safety in
all kinds of conditions, including collisions," he said.
Honda said its cars are certified by the California Air Resources Board and
the Environmental Protection Agency.
And the company claims its fuel cell cars even outlast the Mercedes version,
covering 220 miles before needing refueling. The Mercedes car is a hydrogen
guzzler in comparison -- getting only 90 miles per tank.
While the auto industry has tested hydrogen-powered cars for years, this is
the first time that automakers are letting average drivers have the keys, a
crucial step before the cars can be introduced to the general market.
That's not likely to happen for a decade or longer while more testing is
done, Gates said.
Hydrogen is the latest in a long line of alternative fuels considered by
automakers: electricity, methanol and natural gas among them.
With pressure to introduce more zero-emission vehicles -- including a
California law requiring a percentage of new cars sold in that state to
produce no smog -- the car industry is in a race to find a new fuel that
will click with consumers.
Car industry critics say the problem lies with automakers reticent to shell
out millions of dollars to develop the technology. Carmakers blame consumers
for not embracing alternative fuel vehicles.
With environmental damage from vehicle emissions mounting, many fleets of
alternative fuel cars will have to hit the road to clean the air, said
Richard Varenchik, spokesman for the California Air Resources Board.
"It's really for the automakers to decide to a great extent when they will
introduce the cars to a wide enough market and then for the public to use
them," Varenchik said.
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