Crossing California on hydrogen

When I was researching alternative fuel cars for my commute to the office, I immediately became very interested in the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell. I was fascinated by the power train using hydrogen, the most plentiful element in the universe, to power an electric motor and that the “exhaust” from the fuel cell was actually pure H2O. You cannot get any cleaner than that!

Preserving the environment, utilizing sustainable resources and striving for zero waste are all very important to me. As one of the owners and the CEO of a new natural bath and body care Company, Éclair Naturals, I try to incorporate these principals into all aspects of my life.

I remember the day well that I received the email from Mercedes-Benz Research&Development North America asking if I was interested in being a part of the F-Cell program. I immediately said “yes” and within a few months I was excited to take delivery of my F-Cell car. First I had to use the Torrance facility, which was 15 miles away, until the new West LA Station came online. Now it is operating, performs well and is my new “home” Station.

Ready for a road trip?

A few weeks ago, I received a call asking if I had time for a potential road trip from October 19-21. The route we would be taking, led from Los Angeles to Sacramento. To drive with an F-Cell all the way was only possible, because there was a new hydrogen station in Coalinga which lies halfway between the cities. With this station coming online, it was theoretically possible to drive all the way from Los Angeles to San Francisco. We were going to test that theory!

After a quick inspection of my F-Cell it came back with equipment for the trip: a Motorola radio with which we could communicate whilst on the road and a “Crossing California on Hydrogen” wrap.

Driving from L.A. to Sacramento

On the morning of Monday, the 19th of October, I drove down to the Long Beach MBRDNA facility. When I arrived in Long Beach, there was a team from MBRDNA to greet and brief the participants. In total, there would be five F-Cells making the trip together to Sacramento, most driven by fellow F-Cell customers.

The "Crossing California in an F-CELL"-Team

We were given information about the route we were taking, the stops and exchanged contact information. We got a briefing on how the fuel cell worked and got some more suggestions and advices for our driving behavior. It was at this moment that the weight of what we were doing really started to sink in: This has never been done before. What happens if we run out of fuel? What happens if the car fails?

Sitting next to experts

A little intimidated, we were assigned a co-pilot partner and set out for the Burbank fueling station. My first co-pilot was from the California Fuel Cell Partnership followed by the Governor’s Zero Emission Infrastructure Project Manager. I would also have the pleasure of spending time talking to several of the people with MBRDNA who participated in the trip.

This first drive to Burbank was a good start and we did not have to worry. After that stop the true test began. Pulling out of Burbank, we started heading to Coalinga, approximately 200 miles away. In addition, I knew that we would be going over the grapevine through Tejon Pass, where we would gain over 4,000 feet in elevation as we crossed into the central valley of California.

4,000 feet up the grapevine

When we were going up the grapevine it was a bit scary as the fuel range-to-empty calculator was dropping at a rapid rate due to the steep grade. I think at one point it showed that we would run out of fuel 50 miles before our destination. However, this was clearly a false reading as we would be coasting downhill on the other side of the peak. I certainly felt a lot better once we were down on the other side and the range-to-empty gauge was actually increasing with each mile downhill.

We made it to Coalinga/Harris Ranch with fuel to spare. Not bad for a 2011 model year vehicle that is technically closing in on its “end of service” date. We quickly fueled the five F-Cell vehicles, each fill taking approximately 3-5 minutes. It was nice that the station had the capacity to do these fills without having to rebuild pressure in between vehicles. The new hydrogen stations have come a long way from the early ones.

Stepstone for hydrogen powered cars

Tuesday morning was an early start so that we could line up the cars in front of the building where the California Fuel Cell Partnership Executive Board was meeting. This is a regular meeting that includes several automobile manufacturers, station builders, government officials and other interested parties. We were first up on the agenda reporting our successful historic trip as the first customers to successfully drive a hydrogen powered car from Los Angeles to Sacramento. I guess it is a really good thing we made it!

On our way to Sacramento

After the meeting we went back to the West Sacramento station. Theoretically we went there to “top off” our fuel (mine was still full), but the real reason was to stop by Megan’s Bake Shop that was right around the corner. After an incredible Vanilla Cherry cupcake and some other treats, the group was ready to go.

Enjoying the drive

We drove through the town of Davis and were able to see the University there. We then did a scenic drive through many of the back roads around Davis and through Berryessa, ultimately ending in Napa for lunch. My only regret was not being able to stop by my favorite winery, Prager, to pick up a few bottles of port. I will have to save that for my next trip.

After Napa we headed to Sausalito for some pictures with the Golden Gate Bridge, the San Francisco skyline and the Bay Bridge in the background. The weather could not have been more perfect and the pictures came out incredible. One of our fellow F-Cell customers and drivers on the trip used to work for Pixar and was able to arrange for the tour. It was nice to see some of the studios where Inside Out was being worked on and see some of the things that were helping The Good Dinosaur come to life (in theatres soon!).

San Francisco in the morning, L.A. in the evening

Wednesday morning, feeling confident, we decided to push it a little and headed back towards San Francisco in the morning. We wanted to try to take some great photos of the cars in the morning light from Treasure Island with the San Francisco skyline in the background. Heesoo found a great spot and the pictures speak for themselves.

Enjoying the view at the Golden Gate Bridge

We then began the trek back home. It was a little sad since we were all having a great time. We drove through the California Central valley which was all flat and had great fuel economy. However, we knew the next part would be a bit tricky as we needed to go up the grapevine and through Tejon Pass again. This was the last 1/3 of the trip, the riskiest part.

No risk no fun

We started up the Grapevine and were all eagerly watching the fuel gauge and range (miles to empty). Like the prior time, it started to fall at a rapid rate, at one point showing a fifty mile deficit between our destination and what the trip computer calculated. We did know that we would pick up a lot of range on the decline, but it was still a little disconcerting.

We successfully started our descent, and I joyfully remember one of the drivers saying “weeeeee” over the radio as we picked up speed heading downhill. We were trying to keep our power output at “0” as the most efficient setting, which was interesting as we were often accelerating downhill.

Safe and sound back home

After we hit the 405 South turn off from the 5 South freeway, I knew we were home as I was close to my normal commute to work and the low fuel warning light was not even on. We all pulled into the West LA station with 0.57kg of fuel to spare. After successfully refueling all of the F-Cells and a quick celebratory photo, we said our good byes and went our separate ways- knowing that we would forever be friends in sharing this unique adventure together.

The next morning as I drove to work I noticed a distinct difference in my attitude toward the F-Cell. I was still very happy to have my F-Cell, but a little bit of the sense of adventure was gone. The car performs just like a normal car – dependable and predictable. And, with all of the hydrogen stations that have just come online and the ones planned, the frantic fuel planning is rapidly becoming a challenge of the past. We have validated that we now have a reliable and practical hydrogen powered fuel cell car that is not bound by just intra-city trips.

Personal resumee

I want to compliment the Mercedes Benz Research and Development team, the state of California for being forward thinking and conscious about our environment and the hydrogen station owners that are forward thinking and making this a reality.

Throughout the trip, I marveled at seeing pure H2O coming out the exhaust area as opposed to black smoke. Having lived in Los Angeles for many years, air quality is of great importance to me. Also, running a natural products company, Éclair Naturals, where none of our products are allowed to use petroleum based ingredients as part of our brand promise, it is great to drive a car to work that is consistent with this philosophy of sustainable resources.


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He is currently the Co-Founder and CEO of Éclair Naturals, an all-natural bath and body care company. During his career he has led many companies through major transformations such as rapid hyper-growth, challenging turnarounds, major acquisitions or substantial business model changes. In his free time he enjoys leading the local Santa Monica Cub Scout Pack, serving as Treasurer of Santa Monica Little League and coaching his sons on various sports Teams.

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