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The dream bus stops here

Fuel cell vehicles can deliver more than a nice ride — if we don’t ditch them

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"If we are going to take that first thing and say it's too expensive and apply it right across the board, we would have nothing today," says Chahine.

Market research by Daimler, which has partnered with Ford and Ballard in a new Burnaby-based company called AFCC (Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation) to develop the automotive side of fuel cells, also shows strong public momentum for these zero-emission vehicles. But there's a caveat.

"We always have this extremely positive feedback from people riding on the (Daimler fuel cell) buses in the European program or test driving one of our new fuel cell B-Classes - a very, very high rate of acceptance and excitement about this," says Andreas Truckenbrodt, CEO at AFCC.

"On the one hand, it's exciting for many people riding in such a vehicle to know you have no emissions, that it's very efficient and you're doing something good for the environment, and this is where the future is going... Then when they're going to sign the purchase contract, if the vehicle costs more, rationale kicks in and this readiness disappears."

Climate change or not, surveys show we consumers are willing to spend extra money on leather seats, a good sound system and fancy alloy rims but not on zero emissions or fuel economy.

In fact, the No. 1 consideration for car buyers is design. This shouldn't be a problem for fuel cell vehicles, at least not for the ones that drove from Los Angeles for last June's rally. Every vehicle, even the delivery vans by Volkswagen, had huge eye-appeal.

And the technology is there, too. The Canadian industry is already selling fuel cells commercially for stationary power uses, forklifts and airport transporters. In terms of vehicles, the people at AFCC - and Toyota - are confident they have all the technical pieces of the puzzle in place for commercial-ready vehicles by 2015 ( See: Excitement at Toyota ).

The 100-plus fuel cell demonstration vehicles Daimler has on the road right now - buses and the F-CELL Mercedes B-Class cars using the same Ballard fuel cell as the Whistler buses - all show good performance, good durability, good freeze-start capability, says Truckenbrodt. In short, all the qualities drivers want and expect today from a vehicle.