Gas-free cars will soon hit streets

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Coming soon to a freeway -- or driveway -- near you: cars that don’t need gasoline.

American Honda Motor Co., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. announced plans at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Wednesday to put alternative fuel technology vehicles on the road in California in coming months. A few drivers will even get to park them in their garages.

Honda and GM’s Chevrolet have developed hydrogen fuel cell-powered cars for limited test use, while Ford is producing a plug-in hybrid vehicle. And although none are being manufactured in large quantities -- mass production is still years away -- the limited trials will be a tantalizing taste of what’s likely to come.

The FCX Clarity is what Honda calls a “production” version of a hydrogen fuel cell car it first exhibited two years ago. It promises zero emissions and luxury features such as heated seats and Bluetooth connectivity while getting about the equivalent of 68 miles per gallon.

Honda says it will lease the four-door sedans to a limited number of people in Irvine, Santa Monica and Torrance by next summer. (Those areas are being targeted because they’re near hydrogen refueling centers.) The three-year lease -- the first time fuel cell cars will have been made commercially available anywhere -- will be $600 a month, or about the cost of a BMW 5 Series, Honda executives said.

Motorists will be able to keep the cars at home and drive them as they please while being mindful that the fuel tank allows them to go 270 miles between fill-ups. The leases include insurance and mechanical service from Honda.

The Japanese automaker won’t say how much each FCX Clarity costs to make but admits the lease comes nowhere near to covering its expenses. Hydrogen fuel cell cars, which convert hydrogen into electricity used to power a motor, can cost $1 million or more each to make.

“At the end of the lease, we definitely want them back,” said Dan Bonawitz, vice president of corporate planning and logistics for Honda. The company will use the lease term to gather information on the vehicle.

GM, meanwhile, says it will distribute 100 hydrogen fuel cell-powered Chevrolet Equinox crossovers over the next half year, including 10 that it will lend to Walt Disney Co. Like the Honda FCX, the Equinoxes will be used for company research.

“These will give up a good practical test of where these cars belong,” said GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, adding that other Equinoxes will end up in “the hands of the public” and celebrities.

Honda and GM are focusing on Southern California because of its relative abundance of hydrogen fuel stations. Beyond Santa Monica, Irvine and Torrance, there are stations in Burbank, Diamond Bar and Long Beach, and about 20 others in the state. In many other parts of the country, there are no stations.

In California, Bonawitz said, hydrogen per kilogram, the unit used for the fuel, costs $4 to $10. A tank could cost $16 to $40 to fill.

Ford, meanwhile, is lending 20 plug-in hybrid Escapes to Southern California Edison.

The utility, which will use them as fleet vehicles, is to take delivery next month. Ford said it had planned to announce the partnership on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” but was unable to do so because of the writers strike.

Jennifer Moore, corporate news manager for Ford, says the company will use the test to study the commercialization possibilities of lithium-ion batteries and the behavior of plug-in drivers. “How do people use them? How often will they charge them? These are the questions we’ll be asking,” Moore said.

Who will be driving them is another question. Moore said Edison might use them as standard fleet vehicles or let employees drive them as their personal cars. And whereas Disney will use its Chevy Equinoxes as corporate shuttles, Honda wants to make sure some regular folks get behind the wheel.

To that end, it will have four fuel cell cars on hand at the Auto Show today and it will allow test drives by invited motorists and a few members of the media.

Skeptics point out that neither plug-in hybrids nor fuel cell vehicles are anywhere near ready for prime time, and are perhaps a decade or more away from true commercialization.

The tests by Honda, Ford and GM are “a demonstration on the part of the carmakers that they’re green,” said David Healy, an analyst at Burnham Securities. “Or at least that they look like they’re green.”