SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Driving the newest fuel-cell vehicles is believing that there is no reason not to ship them to dealerships tomorrow.
Except that they fill up on pure hydrogen and puff out water vapor.
And they have a price tag with more zeros than the Pentagon's toilet seat budget.
And they sound like barnyard animals.
Fuel cell cars are not silent like the General Motors EV1 and other pure electrics, though they are just electric vehicles with miniature power stations instead of batteries.
A good example is the Necar 4, DaimlerChrysler's latest fuel-cell creation. Mash the Necar's accelerator and it howls like a cow with its tail caught in a pencil sharpener.
Based on the European Mercedes-Benz A-class subcompact, the Necar runs on liquefied hydrogen cryogenically stored at a frosty -423 Fahrenheit.
The frenzied mooing does not come from the fuel-cell stacks themselves; it is essentially a silent process to pass hydrogen molecules through a membrane to strip away their electrons to form electric current while recombining them on the other side with air to create water vapor.
Rather, the noise comes from the compressor feeding hydrogen under pressure to the fuel cell.
It pinwheels up to 15,000 rpm on bearings tightly sealed to prevent lubricants from contaminating the hydrogen stream and gumming up the fuel cell. Noise suppression appears to have been a low priority in the sophisticated design.
So was throttle response. The compressor needs time to spool up and create pressure in the fuel cell. That and the Necar's heifer-like 3,800-pound weight mean the car has a relaxed takeoff.
Engineers promise future versions will be quieter, lighter and quicker.
FORD IS FEISTY
Whereas the Necar is bovine, Ford's P2000 is feline.
Its compressor sounds like a tomcat rehearsing for La Traviata. All Ford engineers will say is that their wailing compressor is 'different.'
Otherwise, the P2000's three-stack, 75-kilowatt Ballard Power Systems fuel cell (or 102 hp, for a net of about 75 hp at the wheels) is nearly identical to the Necar's, except that the Ford uses the electric drivetrain components from the EV Ranger electric pickup.
The P2000 runs on compressed hydrogen gas, giving it a shorter range of about 100 miles compared with the 280 miles for the liquid-hydrogen Necar. However, the Ford weighs 700 pounds less than the smaller Mercedes.
To be fair, the Necar is a stock steel-bodied A class whereas the P2000 is incredibly tricky. Its body is made from laser-welded aluminum panels with aluminum structural castings and a high amount of magnesium, titanium and carbon fiber. Even the glass has been replaced with thin polycarbonate windows.
The P2000's bantam weight is the result of the $50 million Ford has invested during the past eight years to develop lightweight materials and all-aluminum body shells.
Hence, the P2000 scoots earnestly under acceleration, compared with the Necar. Its electro-hydraulic power steering also gives more assist than the pure electric unit in the Necar, and the P2000 handles like a cheetah in turns.
But this kitty will be gasping for hydrogen after 100 miles while the Necar still will be plodding on.