Made in China: VW’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle image

On the heels of the Obama administration’s announcement that it will move away from hydrogen fuel cell funding, Volkswagen confirmed that it remains committed to building fuel cells for hydrogen-powered vehicles.
To stress the company’s point, we were invited to the California Fuel Cell Partnership in Sacramento to test-drive Volkswagen’s fuel cell prototypes.
Currently, the automaker’s fuel cell efforts are housed under the sheet metal of Chinese-spec Passat Lingyus, which were built primarily for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. VW gave scientists at Tongji University in China free rein to create, implement and refine the fuel cell components within them.
All 22 Passat Lingyus are roadworthy, with a range of 186 miles per hydrogen top-up. However, according to John Tillman, program manager of Volkswagen’s Advanced Powertrain Research Program, the fuel cells are “still at least a generation out from being ready for public consumption.” You don’t say?
Despite this, the fuel cell vehicles were a lot more functional than we’d expected. Electric cars are silent, clean diesels have a torquey burble, but the fuel cell vehicle quietly whirred down the road, the ride punctuated by occasional noises that sounded similar to carnival ride hydraulics or something a Foley artist would create for a Will Smith movie set five minutes into the future.
Acceleration is akin to an electric car, where power builds slowly but steadily due to the single-gear transmission. Stomping on the gas pedal, er, hydrogen pedal, won’t get you anywhere fast, but the Lingyus never feels dangerously slow.
Minor gripes: The air conditioning can’t be turned on unless you find repetitive grinding from the electric motor soothing, and the vibrations from the fuel cell, which spans the entire length of the cabin, transmit into the seats. Think of it as driving with surround sound. Undoubtedly, the engineers are more concerned with fuel cell durability than the odd noise and burp here and there.
There is clearly a long way to go before fuel cells will be ready for mainstream applications, and the question of their viability remains. Still, those at VW – and many other automakers – want it known they consider research into this technology a fundamental aspect of alternative fuel development. Whether it’s throwing good money at a problem solution, only time will tell.