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It's unusual to hear many good things about hydrogen vehicles at a conference dedicated to plug-in vehicles. The reverse cannot be said of the pro-hydrogen folks. At the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2009 conference here in Vancouver, BC this week, the main message of yesterday's panel discussion on automotive commercialization was that there should be hydrogen vehicles alongside other alternatives, at least in the near term. The benefits of battery-only and hybrid cars in urban driving conditions were praised, but the agreement was that H2 vehicles provide the best replacement for cars if we want to keep using them the way we do today.

Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, opened the panel with a big statement:

With fuel cell vehicles, we are clearly past the stage of hype and on to the hard work or making it happen.

In a sense, she's right. Hydrogen vehicles are available today. But to say we're past they hype? Hmmm. Not so sure about that. Listen to Dunwoody:

Much more, including more audio clips, after the jump.

It was a pretty big deal for Larry Burns, VP of research and development of strategic planning for General Motors, to be be in Vancouver on the day that GM filed for bankruptcy. Still, while things were happening for GM in New York, Burns said that he couldn't imagine a more important place for him to be, because, like Churchill, he believes that the only way to get through hell is to keep going. While GM is looking for the "and" solutions, hydrogen vehicles represent the future, and that's what Burns was excited to talk about. "The new General Motors is all about reinventing the automobile and reinventing the automobile industry," he said. (Remember, the last time we talked to Burns, he was unveiling the PUMA)

No matter what happens to GM, Burns said that vehicle miles traveled in the U.S. are expected to keep climbing while emissions laws will keep getting tighter. There is no way that minor improvements in fuel economy numbers with the associated continued reliance on gasoline ICEs will allow America to reach the targets of reduced green house gas emissions to 80 percent of 1990 levels by 2050. The short version of Burns' many graphs: only by using a mix of petroleum alternatives (biofuels, plug-ins, hydrogen from natural gas, hydrogen from biomass) can the targets be reasonably met. Of course, each of these has its own problems. Biomass-to-hydrogen, for example, will have the unknown impact on land and water resources, and Burns made it clear that GM's numbers that show there will be enough of these resources are speculative beyond about 2030.

Burns also gave an update on GM's fuel cell program. The program currently has 115 vehicles deployed and customers have put over 800,000 miles on these vehicles. All told, the vehicles have filled up almost 10,000 times and used 18,000 of H2. The hydrogen service vehicles have over 20,000 miles on them, and GM has trained over 1,400 First Responders to use the vehicles. Also, GM has found that the "vehicles performed very well through two winters." So there's that. You can listen to Burn's talk or download the MP3 here.

Steve Ellis, Honda's fuel cell vehicle sales and marketing manager, has been working on getting fuel cell vehicles to the public for years. He's given his pro-hydrogen spiel many, many times and we've had in-depth conversations with him back in 2006 about hydrogen efficiency, in 2007 on the then-new FCX Clarity, and in 2008 at the AltCar Expo. Let's just state the he knows his stuff.

Ellis said that comparing fuel cell vehicles to today's ICE vehicles is unfair because automakers have had 100+ years to refine and learn about the ICE and the powertrain and to educate people on how to use them. With hydrogen vehicles, not so much, and Ellis said, "We've just started the marathon of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles."

Ellis said the Honda FCX Clarity (above, with Q'orianka Kilcher) is a "generation-skipping" vehicle compared to the original FCX. This is true for the advances made the design and powertrain of the Clarity but also in how Honda is getting these cars out to regular drivers.

He showed a picture of a Clarity going through a fairly standard production process, and said Honda made the cars this way to prove that hydrogen vehicles can be commercialized. Honda currently leases these cars to consumers through three California dealerships, another step in the ladder to "normalization." During the first leases, Honda paid close attention to how the three dealerships explained the cars and their unusual features to the customers, but, in general, kept quiet and let them do their job. If Honda's plan to have thousands or tens of thousands of these vehicles out on the roads is to come to fruition, dealerships - not Steve Ellis - need to be out there selling the cars. Currently, Honda's plan calls for 200 cars in Southern California over three years, but the rate will increase when more hydrogen fueling stations are built, he said. Listen to Ellis (or download):

Other speakers on the panel were Taiyo Kawai, from Toyota Motor Corporation, and Andreas Truckenbrodt, CEO of the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation Corporation. Kawai spoke on Toyota's goals for fuel cell cost reduction, but he gave some pretty deep in the weeds technical details, so if you're interested, click to listen.

Truckenbrodt talked about Daimler's plans for commercializing fuel cells, including the B-Class F-Cell vehicle that will hit the road later this year. A slide of the path can be seen here. You'll notice that the audio cuts out during Truckenbrodt's presentation. This wasn't meant to slight him, there was just a presentation starting at that time called "Threats to the introduction of fuel cell vehicles and how to deal with them." I couldn't pass that up.

Our travel and lodging for this event were paid for by the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

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