Stars test the waters with hydrogen cars

Joely Fisher received a BMW Hydrogen 7 Series loaner from BMW Clean Energy. Fisher will use the car for the next three weeks and joins a long list of Los Angeles notables such as Jay Leno, Cameron Diaz and Magic Johnson to drive new alternative fuel vehicles.
(Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times)

Oscar-winning writer and director Paul Haggis owns four Toyota Priuses and is high on the waiting list to buy a $100,000 Tesla electric roadster. But when he heard about the new Honda FCX Clarity, a hydrogen-powered car that gets 270 miles on a tank and emits nothing but water, he was desperate to drive it.

“I want one. I want one,” he said of the Clarity, later dispatching his agent to hunt for the not-yet-available vehicle.

A step ahead of Haggis was Joely Fisher, star of Fox’s “ ‘Til Death” TV show. She arranged for BMW to lend her a sleek metallic blue Hydrogen 7 Series -- one of just 20 such experimental sedans in the country.


Never mind that it gets just 130 miles per tank and can be filled only by a trained professional, who takes it to Oxnard and refuels it with liquid hydrogen cooled to 423 degrees below zero, a round trip that can take three hours. The sedan comes with a feature that’s worth the hassle: “Bragging rights,” Fisher said, laughing.

Fancy cars have long been integral to the one-upmanship among L.A.’s glitterati. But instead of Bentleys and Bugattis, Hollywood’s must-have vehicles of the moment are green. And nothing conveys extreme exclusivity and earth-friendliness like a hydrogen car.

The fad is a boon for carmakers, which are leveraging the enthusiasm of the stars and their attendant paparazzi to boost their image as environmentally friendly companies. The cars aren’t for sale -- and won’t be for years -- but automakers are using celebrities to promote the technology and build support for the infrastructure needed to make hydrogen cars commercially viable.

In addition to arranging the car for Fisher, BMW has lent its tricked-out luxury sedans -- emblazoned with “Clean Energy Powered by Hydrogen” in huge block letters -- to actors Edward Norton and Cameron Diaz, opera star Placido Domingo and ultimate influencers Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

General Motors Corp., meanwhile, has put Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger, “Ugly Betty” star America Ferrera and former Laker Magic Johnson behind the wheel of its $1-million Chevy Equinox Fuel Cell.

Not to be outdone, Honda Motor Co. has lined up its own A-list to drive its FCX Clarity -- but it’s keeping the names under wraps until later this month.

Driven by a cause

Beyond the cachet of holding the keys to such hard-to-get vehicles, environmentally attuned celebrities say driving the cars brings attention to a potentially important transportation technology in an age of $4-a-gallon gasoline and global warming concerns.

“I want to do everything I can to make sure that people know that the technology is available and we are not far off from having this on the road,” Fisher said.

The green trend began several years ago with the Prius: Leonardo DiCaprio drove one of the hybrids to the 2004 Academy Awards, and Larry David practically made his Prius a costar on his show “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Now that those have become commonplace, Hollywood is moving on to more futuristic technology.

BMW’s hydrogen program is run by Jim Ryan, who juggles the complicated schedules of the VIPs who request the car. Ryan says the cars trigger an infectious exhibitionism. He described a recent delivery to Laura Dern, an actress so attuned to conservation that she hired an environmental consultant to evaluate the eco-fitness of her house.

“Once she got the car, she said, ‘I’ve got to show Steven Spielberg. I’ve got to show Meg Ryan,’ ” he recalled.

Agents have been working overtime to get their clients driving hydrogen. The BMW has been working its way through Hollywood, with the help of Creative Artists Agency, for about a year and has a two-month waiting list. Honda said 50,000 people had signed up online to lease the Clarity, which rolls out in July. GM uses William Morris Agency to arrange its pairings. Among the most recent recipients were “American Idol” host Ryan Seacrest and producer Jerry Bruckheimer.

William Morris Chief Executive Jim Wiatt says the vehicle causes a sensation wherever he goes. When driving one off the Disney lot in Burbank recently, he was pulled over by a police officer. “I thought I’d done something wrong,” Wiatt said. “He said to me, ‘What is this you’re driving?’ ”

Hydrogen technology has been around for decades, helping to power the space shuttle, among other applications. But serious study of its use in cars is relatively new.

BMW burns hydrogen in a conventional internal combustion engine. GM and Honda, like most other carmakers developing the technology, mix hydrogen gas with oxygen from the air in a device called a fuel cell to create electricity that drives electric motors.

Proponents note that hydrogen vehicles emit no greenhouses gases, unlike gasoline-powered cars. They have greater range than today’s electric cars and can be refueled faster than a battery can be charged.

“Petroleum is not a long-term solution for cars, and battery cars have real limitations,” said Bill Reinert, national manager for advanced technologies at Toyota Motor Corp. “Hydrogen technology is getting much better.”

Hydrogen’s drawbacks

But critics say hydrogen fuel is difficult to store and, at least for now, energy inefficient. It requires more energy to produce than it provides once it’s in the car’s tank. Moreover, the process of making hydrogen can create greenhouse gases. And fuel cells are very expensive because they contain precious metals such as platinum and palladium.

“It’s a least a couple hundred thousand dollars per vehicle,” said Spencer Quong of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit environmental group. “They have to reduce those costs.”

Perhaps the largest obstacle is infrastructure. There are just 61 hydrogen fueling stations in the country, compared with 180,000 gas stations, and only 25 hydrogen stations in California, making commutes difficult. No matter how famous the driver, GM and Honda provide their cars only to people who live within a few miles of stations in Burbank, Torrance, Santa Monica and Irvine.

Luckily for actress Q’orianka Kilcher, the Santa Monica fueling station is close to home. Kilcher, who costarred with Colin Farrell in the movie “The New World,” was one of three people allowed to lease Honda’s first fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX. She pays $600 a month for the privilege of driving a boxy two-door hatchback emblazoned with the phrase “Honda Fuel Cell Power.” She took her driver’s test in it and is on the Clarity waiting list.

“I think Hollywood will definitely love it,” said Kilcher, 18.

Honda says that although some of its hydrogen cars will go to celebrities, it will allocate the bulk of them -- 200 over the next three years -- to people who can’t be found in the Internet Movie Database. “The last thing we’d want is for the car to be cubbyholed as something just for the rich and famous,” said Stephen Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel cell marketing.

Aside from generating buzz, the automakers expect to use the loaners to gather information about the cars to refine the technology. GM’s program puts most of its vehicles in the hands of regular drivers and doesn’t charge for the loan. There’s a waiting list of about 8,000 people.

GM has a more aggressive timeline than other carmakers. Desperate to make up the ground it lost to Japanese rivals on hybrids, the Detroit automaker said it hoped to commercialize hydrogen vehicles by 2012, far ahead of competitors. To accelerate that timeline, GM is lobbying Sacramento to mandate more fueling stations in California.

That’s a big part of why GM asked William Morris to help find celebrity drivers: It hopes VIPs will evangelize about the technology and build public demand for hydrogen infrastructure.

In the realm of celebrities and cars, no one is more visible than Jay Leno. The “Tonight Show” host has driven GM’s Equinox, Honda’s Clarity and other hydrogen cars and wrote an article for Popular Mechanics based on 10 days in the BMW.

Leno is currently commuting in the Equinox. “The pickup is very, very good, very smooth. It doesn’t make any noise,” he said.

Although enthusiastic about the technology, Leno believes another fuel might offer a better solution, at least for now.

“Hydrogen is sort of sexy to people,” he said. “But diesel is the most efficient fuel we have right now.”