WEST SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- In the parking lot of a building squeezed between Interstate 80 and the Sacramento River, Kota Manabe did something at once as elemental as it was revolutionary: he topped off the tank of a sport utility vehicle.
The only suggestions that anything was out of the ordinary were the flame-retardant suit the Toyota engineer wore and the fuel he pumped into the Highlander: pure hydrogen.
"Basically, it's just like refueling at a normal station," fellow engineer Kyo Hattori said.
While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, as an automotive fuel it's about as commonplace as moon travel. There are only two hydrogen filling stations in the entire state.
The futuristic SUV being tested at the California Fuel Cell Partnership is part of an international push to create cars and trucks that run more cleanly and efficiently than any in history. Fuel cells that power the vehicles combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity. They emit only water vapor and heat.
But the hydrogen-powered Highlander also exemplifies a critical problem faced by alternative vehicles: They may be friendly to the environment but they're a mystery to consumers.
That conundrum stems from several factors, including consumer uncertainty about performance and resistance to change by automakers. As a result, the spread of alternative fuel vehicles has been slow.
"The Big Three have often used future vehicles as an excuse not to produce current innovations -- it's the Wimpy approach, the 'I will gladly pay you Tuesday, but don't make us do anything today to increase fuel efficiency and in 10 to 20 years we will produce a much more efficient car,"' said Daniel Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global warming and energy program.
For decades, California has been at the forefront of the clean vehicle movement aimed at fighting smog and global warming while cutting dependence on oil. The innovations have been driven by California's Air Resources Board, which sets air quality standards independent of the federal government.
Now, enterprises like the California Fuel Cell Partnership aim to help meet the state's zero emission mandate, which requires an increasing percentage of new cars and trucks to emit no pollution.
The mandate was to have taken effect next year, but auto manufacturers won a preliminary injunction in June that delays implementation for two years. Alternative fuel vehicles are a big part of the mandate, but thus far the movement has failed to gain much speed.
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