When Zoe Stathopoulos, an ad exec from Ruder Finn, contacted Steven and me to invite us to the Chicago stop of Hyundai’s Drive 4 Hope event promoting the Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle (FCEV), a hydrogen-powered car, it raised our eyebrows.
“I think this is right up your alley given your interest in sustainable transportation in Chicago,” she wrote. “As those who are interested in green/clean energy and the environment know, nothing in the automotive industry holds more promise for the health of the planet than fuel cell technology.”
Hydrogen cars do have a few environmental advantages over gasoline-powered vehicles. The Tucson uses fuel cell power from compressed hydrogen, which is renewable and less volatile than gas. The car gets 70 MPG and has the potential to have no carbon emissions, with water as its only waste product.
I first heard about hydrogen cars in a George W. Bush state of the union speech. At the time I thought, instead of addressing America’s over-dependence on cars, he’s promoting technology that would allow people to feel like they’re saving the planet while making no real lifestyle changes.
Although I was interested in attending, I wrote Stathopoulos, “I should disclose that I’m a little skeptical of ‘green’ cars as a solution to our nation’s transportation problems. It’s great if they reduce emissions, but as cars they don’t do anything to address the issues of traffic fatalities, congestion, urban sprawl and sedentary lifestyles associated with America’s love affair with the automobile. I’m interested in getting people to drive less as well as driving ‘greener.’ ”
“Feel free to mention any concerns in your blog post,” she responded gamely. “Free speech makes for good journalism and reporting!”
After attending the event I do feel slightly warmer to the possibility of replacing gas-powered vehicles with FCEVs as a small part of the solution to the world’s environmental woes. And I’d have to have to be a real Scrooge to completely trash the Drive 4 Hope, since the promotion involves driving the Tucson 4,500 miles from San Francisco to New York in September, solely on hydrogen power, visiting 15 pediatric cancer institutions.
Hyundai is awarding $100,000 grants to 71 children’s hospitals across the country this month, as part of the $43 million the company and its dealers have donated to childhood cancer research since 1998. During this cross-country test drive, staffers are collecting hand prints from child cancer patients and survivors to display on the vehicle.
A handprint from a child cancer patient.
The Chicago event took place last night downtown at the Drake Hotel, 140 E. Walton, where security was tight since Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe was staying there. At the reception I speak to local Hyundai dealer Steve Foresta and his fiancée Angela Rowling. When I ask them about the potential benefits of HVECs, Foresta says while hydrogen cars will be expensive to buy, they’ll be cheap to operate. “Everyone’s concerned about the environment and saving money on fuel, especially in Chicago where we have the highest gas prices in the nation,” he says.
Angela Rowling and Steve Foresta, an automobile dealer at O’Hare Hyundai.
The Tucson, covered with the colorful hand prints, is parked outside on a red carpet. Hyundai Director of General Affairs Zafar Brooks is showing members of the media around the vehicle. When it’s my turn to speak with him I say, “First, I’d like to say that it’s really great your company donating so much money to cancer research.” Then, apologizing for sounding like a crank, I ask him how he thinks the Tucson fits into addressing the car-associated problems I mentioned to Stathopoulos.
[flickr]photo:6152927324[/flickr]Zafar Brooks speaking before the attendees
“We have a love affair with our cars in America,” he responds patiently. “There will always be a role for automotive transportation, but as a car manufacturer we realize our responsibility in consuming resources and creating pollution.” He then reiterates the environmental benefits of the Tucson.
The most encouraging piece of info I pick up at the Drive 4 Hope is that Hyundai is also creating fuel cell buses. The first such bus debuted at the 2006 German World Cup as a shuttle bus around Munich, and there are currently two operating in South Korea. While I still feel hydrogen cars are something of a distraction from the other major problems associated with there being too many automobiles in the world, hydrogen-powered buses truly are green vehicles.
[flickr]photo:6152965228[/flickr] Hyundai fuel cell bus in Seoul, South Korea
What do you think: could hydrogen cars be part of the answer to global transportation and environmental problems, or do they just divert resources from finding real solutions? If they became affordable, might you ever find yourself saying, as Beck Hansen once sang, “Lady, step inside my Hyundai?”
Related post: Nissan has moved up a Chicago launch of the Leaf all-electric car after it noticed that Chicago has a growing EV-charging network.