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Driving The Future Today - Alt-Fuel Car Drivers Describe Daily Life

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author photo by Autotrader January 2011

Each time the price of gasoline goes up, alternative fuels become more mainstream. It's no longer a question of "if" but more a question of "when." And for some people, that time is already here.

Jill Davis, 44, of Newport Beach, California, runs a business with her husband and is mother of two boys. She also drives a Honda FCX Clarity. This is a fuel cell car that runs on hydrogen. That gas moves through the cell, causing a chemical reaction, resulting in electricity, which then drives an electric motor or is stored in the onboard battery pack.

"We've had the car since December 2009," said Davis, "and we love it. We've really had fun. It's something different, new technology. And we don't feel like we're giving up any performance."

The Davis family uses the FCX virtually every day – all normal driving: school, shops, taking the kids to sports events. "We always feel special in it. It has a different sound, but doesn't need different treatment." It's strictly a four-seater (some of the battery pack goes down the center of the cabin floor), but that's no problem here: "we're a four-person family."

Hydrogen is still a rare commodity, therefore the specter of range anxiety looms over fuel cell users as well as drivers of electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf. "We knew up front we were going to have limited mileage, so we don't put ourselves in that position," said Davis. "Our longest journeys are about 150 miles round trip. One tankful has a range of about 220 to 224 miles. And we always fill up at UCI (University of California, Irvine – about 40 miles south of Los Angeles)."

The fuel is also available in Thousand Oaks and Santa Monica (both areas are part of the Los Angeles sprawl). Indeed, one of the stipulations for leasing an FCX (which costs about $500 a month) is an address close to a hydrogen supply. Otherwise, the process was simple for the Davis family. "My nine-year-old son signed us up on the internet. It took two years for Honda to get in touch, then another six months to go through the vetting process, first a phone interview, then a person-to-person interview."

It's the impetus from the younger generation that may well bring greater acceptance of more eco-friendly cars. "My 17-year-old son thinks [the FCX] is cool. It's easier for the young to get behind alternative vehicles. We're learning from our children. Other teenagers see this car and tell their friends how they saw it at the auto show."

The FCX feels more premium than an Accord, despite having recyclable seat fabric made from corn. Its ride is smooth and serene, while its dials look like something from a sci-fi movie. "All I would change is to have power seats and a sunroof," said Davis. "If this is the future of motoring, I'd be happy. I think most people would, once they become educated on the different fuel options. There's no sacrifice, but we're doing something for the environment. It's been a great experience."

It's a different experience driving an all-electric vehicle, although no less satisfying. Brad Cohen is 57 and a tax lawyer at Venable LLP in Los Angeles. He has leased a Mini E for nearly two years and thinks "it's an absolute blast." This plug-in version of the well-loved hatch has a similar enthusiasm for corners as its gas-powered sibling. "It holds the road unbelievably well," says Cohen. "It's amazing how powerful it is, even going up steep hills." That's because an electric motor has all its torque available from standstill, meaning acceleration that borders on hilarious.

Cohen's longest trip has been about 50 miles, but his normal commute is three miles each way. "I don't have any range anxiety," he said. Besides, BMW/Mini has a 24/7 roadside assistance service as part of the lease deal. "We're a five-car family," said Cohen, "so we can mix and match according to what the situation demands. We have two Priuses – those are our gas guzzlers.

"There's an auto-brake function, where if you take your foot off the throttle, the car slows itself down. The brake lights come on at the same time. It's a good thing, but between that and the instant acceleration, it takes some getting used to. Driving from an on-ramp and merging with freeway traffic needs careful attention too, because it's quite easy to be up against the back of another car before you know it. It's so much faster than everything else. And I'm not a speed freak. Still, I feel safe in the car."

An extension cord can plug into any socket and BMW/Mini has installed a fast-charging unit in Cohen's home. Detractors may like to chime in at this point and talk about where the electricity comes from, how we're burning coal for it. "I don't know about the front end or the back end, how clean or otherwise the Mini E is to produce or dispose of at the end of its life, but I love the fact that, in operation, I'm carbon neutral." That's because Cohen gets his electricity from solar panels. "I'm Mister Green," he said.

"I really admire BMW/Mini for putting this out there. I know the car won't go into full-scale production, that the company is field-testing the hardware for a future BMW electric vehicle (possibly the Megacity car, rumored to come out within the next year or two). So you're a guinea pig and have to accept that. I would jump at the chance of leasing that new vehicle, if BMW could keep the cost reasonable. I like being on the cutting edge.

"Lease costs [for the Mini E] started out at $900 a month, and have now gone down to $600 and change. BMW also pays part of the insurance. Add to that how much money is saved on gas. There are luxury cars that cost $1,200 a month to lease. I would rather spend the money on something like this. I have a son and daughter in their 20s – they also love the Mini E – and I think buying luxury items sends them the wrong message."

There have been a few negatives. The battery pack (which takes up the space where the rear seats would go in a "normal" Mini Cooper) "sometimes jumps when you drive over bumps. And the service experience has been an issue... they used to keep the car a bit too long at first." But Cohen would be just as content as Davis if an electric Mini represented the future. "Especially if it had four seats," he said.

If anyone is feeling pessimistic that cars will become boring and homogenized as they embrace sustainable fuels, the Honda FCX Clarity and Mini E point to the opposite effect. Each has its own distinct personality, merits and uses. Going green won't mean being dull.

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Driving The Future Today - Alt-Fuel Car Drivers Describe Daily Life - Autotrader