On this day in 2002, Toyota delivers its first two “market-ready” hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCHVs, in the company’s shorthand) to researchers at the University of California at Irvine and the University of California at Davis. Since 1997, Toyota had been providing research money to UC scientists and engineers who studied the problems associated with “advanced transportation systems” like fuel-cell vehicles. With their new fleet of FCHVs, the researchers finally had a chance to test out their theories.
Unlike the Toyota Prius, which has a gas-electric hybrid engine, FCHVs use a hydrogen fuel-cell system that generates electricity by combining hydrogen with oxygen. That electricity powers the car’s motor and charges its batteries. As a result, the vehicle creates no environmentally unfriendly byproducts: its only emission is water vapor.
The early FCHVs had a cruising range of 180 miles and a top speed of 96 miles per hour. Toyota later revamped the vehicle somewhat, improving its range and making it 25 percent more efficient. In September 2007, company engineers in Japan drove an FCHV 347 miles from the Osaka Prefectural Government Office to the Mega Web amusement center in Tokyo with the air-conditioner on and without refueling. Later that year, they took the FCHV on an even longer test drive, from Fairbanks, Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia–a distance of 2,300 miles. They chose that route for two reasons: because it would demonstrate the FCHV’s hardiness in the face of cold weather and rough roads and because mobile refueling of hydrogen-powered vehicles is allowed on Canadian highways but not on American ones.
In January 2009, Toyota announced that its fuel-cell car would go on the market in 2015. However, since it turns out that California’s influential Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) mandate gives more credits to fuel-cell vehicles than to plug-in hybrid vehicles, the company has since revised its timeline: In May 2009, a Toyota spokesman declared that people might be able to buy the cars in 2014 or even sooner. Toyota and other FCHV proponents then turned their energy to the next challenge: providing fuel for the cars by creating a hydrogen-refueling infrastructure in California and across the country.