SACRAMENTO General Motors Corp plans to have 1,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in California between 2012 to 2014 to comply with the state's goal to put thousands of cleaner cars on its roads.
GM has about 60 Chevrolet Equinox fuel cell vehicles in Southern California now, the automaker's vice president for research & development and planning, Larry Burns, said at the National Hydrogen Association conference here.
"The next logical play for us is to take that up to a car scale of about 1,000," Burns said in an interview.
With 1,000 cars, GM will be "in the ballpark" of meeting its share of the 7,500 zero-emissions cars California wants on its roads between 2012 and 2014, Burns said.
He said GM would also have enough fuel cell cars on the road to amass statistics on the technology's durability.
As the number of hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road increases, Burns said there would be a "tipping point" toward mainstream acceptance and financial viability for its fuel cell vehicles in 2017 or 2018.
He said increasing the number of fuel cell cars on the road would demonstrate that they are in demand and that there is a sensible business model underlying their production. "That's what I would call a tipping point," Burns said. "That could be there in 2017 or 2018."
Fuel-cell powered vehicles, which run on hydrogen and emit only water vapor, are being touted as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, combat climate change and reduce the United States' dependency on crude oil.
According to Burns, fuel cells are more applicable to big, family cars than electric vehicle technology is because they would not require an oversized battery for range and power.
At issue for fuel cells, however, is the lack of an infrastructure for refueling. California, which has the country's most ambitious plans for putting fuel cell cars on the road, has only 25 refueling stations, Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, said at the conference.
Burns said GM is lobbying energy companies and lawmakers to put 40 hydrogen refueling stations in the Los Angeles area. Most residents would have to drive about three-and-a-half miles or less to refuel, making fuel cell cars a more viable option for them, he said.
Burns said such a project would cost about $160 million, a fraction of the more than $1 billion GM has already spent on developing fuel cell vehicles.
"$160 million is $10 per resident. That's two Starbucks coffees," he said.
Royal Dutch Shell Plc's hydrogen unit, Shell Hydrogen, "has plans to do what I think is a very responsible piece of this," Burns said, referring to the addition of hydrogen refueling stations in the Los Angeles area.
In an interview, Steve Ellis, Honda Motor Co Ltd's manager of fuel cell marketing, echoed Burns' calls for a hydrogen infrastructure.
Honda plans to start leasing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity, this summer to customers who live near three refueling stations in the Los Angeles area. Ellis would not specify how many of the cars would initially be available to consumers, but he said the number would increase over time.
Ellis said he was seeing a higher level of interest from energy companies and governments about investing in an infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
Burns agreed, saying $100-a-barrel oil and Al Gore's movie about global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," had had an impact on many players in the industry.
"More and more people understand that something fundamental is happening right now," he said.
(Editing by Phil Berlowitz, Toni Reinhold)