Putting hydrogen on wheels

Education key to public accepting new vehicles

ccrumbo@thestate.com April 2, 2009 

Selling a hydrogen-powered car requires more than a nifty TV commercial and catchy slogan.

Dealers, salespeople and even the customer need to be trained on how the new technology works, Stephen Ellis of American Honda Motor Co., said Wednesday.

Speaking at the National Hydrogen Association conference and expo at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, Ellis said Honda had to invent a new sales approach when it introduced the FCX Clarity to consumers last summer.

A new design from the ground up, the midsized Clarity sedan uses hydrogen fuel cell technology to propel the electric-drive car. The car cost about $1 million to develop and leases for $600 a month.

Selling the car required salespeople to learn the basics of hydrogen technology, Ellis said. That meant they had to know the answers to questions like:

“Is hydrogen safe?

“When do I refuel the car?

“Hey, what about the Hindenberg?”

Training customers also was crucial because they needed to learn basic maintenance and how to connect the refueling nozzle to the car, said Ellis, manager of fuel cell marketing.

“You need to make sure the customer does not fail and feel we’re dragging them through the mud,” Ellis said.

In addition, before selecting Clarity owners, Honda needed to determine if there were enough hydrogen gas stations in the customer’s neighborhood, Ellis added.

The company figured a station needed to be within five minutes of a customer’s home and a backup station be located within a 15-minute drive.

Infrastructure is key to hydrogen’s growth, said Charles Freese, executive director of fuel cell activities at General Motors Corp.

GM’s hydrogen cars could be in showrooms by 2015, Freese said. “The only question is whether there will be enough infrastructure to support refueling the cars.”

Similar sentiments were echoed by a representative for BMW, which has a manufacturing plant near Greer.

“Hydrogen technology is safe and practical, and we can use it now” said Thomas Korn, an engineer with BMW’s hydrogen program at Oxnard, Calif.

Unlike Honda and GM, BMW is using hydrogen in conventional internal combustion engines. The German automaker has converted a 7 series, full-sized sedan to burn hydrogen for experimental tests.

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