Hydrogen Fuel Vehicles in California: The Road Less Traveled or the Highway to a Greener Future?

At 5:30 p.m., the Arco station in South Pasadena hit its peak hour. Commuters stopped to fill their tanks on the way home. This seems like a normal daily routine, except for the users of an inconspicuous machine in the corner of this station, it’s a risky ordeal.

This is a hydrogen refueling station operated by TrueZero. In California, there are currently 63 such stations serving about 12,000 hydrogen-fueled vehicles, 19 of which are located in the Los Angeles area. California is home to three-quarters of all hydrogen vehicles in the USA. The ‘Hydrogen Highway’ initiative started twenty years ago, driven by then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s vision in 2004 of a zero-emission hydrogen-powered California as he drove a specially made hydrogen-powered Hummer. Yet 20-year later, the dream is still a long way from being realized.


South Pasadena TrueZero Hydrogen Station(By Lifan Zhang)

John Purdy was the fifth driver within half an hour to be upset by this refueling station. Driving a blue Toyota Mirai, he lowered his window only to find the words ‘Dispenser Unavailable’ on the screen of the only hydrogen machine available. Unlike the previous four drivers, Purdy didn’t leave immediately, instead he carefully considered his next destination as he was running low on fuel.

“I have enough fuel for 20 miles, or I’ll have to call a tow truck,” Purdy said. He had rushed from a Pasadena hydrogen station where the fuel ran out when there were only three cars ahead of him. The South Pasadena station showed “normal” on the Station Operational Status System (SOSS) website, but was actually unavailable. “This happens often. This station is always like this, I don’t even know if they ever replenish the fuel,” Purdy complained.

An employee at the nearby Arco station denied this, explaining that the machine was down due to an unknown mechanical fault, not fuel shortage. “Two hours ago, a True Zero technician tried to fix it but left after fiddling around for a while. I guess it might be back online tomorrow,” he shared, showing the maintenance records of the South Pasadena hydrogen station.


Maintenance Records(By Lifan Zhang)

Finding a working hydrogen station became urgent for Purdy. The SOSS indicated the nearest Cal State station status as ‘Unknown,’ while a further Hollywood station appeared available. “Neither of them will work,” Purdy said, ruling out the ‘Unknown’ status as unavailable and noting the lack of recent user reports for the Hollywood station. Purdy felt he couldn’t risk going to Hollywood with his low fuel level.

The West Covina hydrogen station, 15 miles away, became Purdy’s last resort. It showed a 70% fuel level and recent positive user reports. If West Covina turned out to be unavailable too, he would have no choice but to call emergency roadside help.

Purdy recalled the advertisement he saw when he purchased the car. The exciting technical features were the reasons he, as an environmentalist and tech enthusiast, chose this vehicle. The car company claimed that the energy density of hydrogen is 2.7 times that of gasoline. In comparison to electric vehicles, refueling theoretically could be quicker. 

“But what about stability?” Purdy lamented. “For technology users, especially car drivers, safety and stability should be top priorities—especially if you plan to mass-produce a vehicle for consumers, rather than just making a few flashy prototypes for showrooms.”

The good news was that the towing service would be free. Due to the uncertainty surrounding hydrogen fuel vehicles, Toyota offers hydrogen car owners three years of free towing and roadside assistance, along with $15,000 of free hydrogen for both purchasers and lessees. Toyota is the leading hydrogen car manufacturer in the US. By the end of 2022, of the approximately 12,000 hydrogen vehicles in California, 10,477 were Toyota Mirais.

Robert Eagan was planning to retire his Mirai, describing refueling as a “very terrifying experience.” He noted that even when you find a working station, refueling takes longer than expected. Though Toyota states a standard full refill time of 4 minutes, which is much better compared to electric cars, Eagan pointed out that this is under the best of circumstances. “Refueling must be done at a specific temperature for safety. It’s likely to need a 5-10 minute cooling period after the previous car leaves. 

Given that there are usually only one or two machines at a refueling station, waiting for cooling, operating the machine, and refueling can take tens of minutes, making queuing a tormenting process. And after successfully refueling, you can only relax for a 200-mile journey before doing it all over again,” he explained.

Eagan was glad he chose to lease rather than buy the Mirai. He had become a Mirai driver three years ago because he thought hydrogen cars were cool, but now found them too inconvenient. Despite “Mirai” meaning “future” in Japanese, it seems people are not buying into the ‘future’ just yet.

A new 2023 Toyota Mirai starts at $49,500, roughly double the price of a standard Toyota Corolla. But after three years and 20,000 miles of use, both depreciate to about $21,000.

Sheri Jiang, a Pre-Owned Digital Sales Manager at Longo Toyota, a large dealer in El Monte, shared that there are currently 89 Toyota Certified Pre-Owned Mirais available in their store but they have no takers. “Very few people are interested in second-hand Mirais. Right now, we have more sellers than buyers. In contrast, a four to five-year-old used Corolla with under 50,000 miles can be sold in three to five days.” In the second quarter of 2023, hydrogen fuel vehicles sales only accounted for 1% of zero-emission vehicle sales in California.

Despite California continuously building new hydrogen stations and having the largest hydrogen network in the world, it is still far from convenient. “There are many refueling stations in terms of numbers, but the distribution is very uneven with very few in downtown and the northwest part of Los Angeles. A network of unstable hydrogen stations spaced tens of miles apart offers me no convenience,” Purdy said.


Dispenser Unavailable(By Lifan Zhang)

In the past two years, California has built about 15 new hydrogen stations. However, one can’t overlook the maintenance and expansion issues of older stations. Existing stations, like those in South Pasadena and Hollywood, have only one severely aged machine, often resulting in long queues. As the number of hydrogen cars increases, this problem is expected to worsen.

The construction cost is also steep. According to the California energy commission, building a hydrogen station costs about 6.5 million USD, whereas a charging station needs just 110,000 USD. The vision of a ‘Hydrogen Highway’ seems grand, but realizing it will require numerous investment of 6.5 million USD in this industry is filled with uncertainties.

California is vying for recognition as a leading regional hub for clean hydrogen by the Biden administration, part of an initiative worth $8 billion. “California is all in on clean, renewable hydrogen — an essential aspect of how we’ll power our future and cut pollution,” Governor Newsom stated.

However, the governor’s spokesperson, Alex Stack, did not confirm if Newsom backs the inclusion of hydrogen vehicle refueling stations within the Clean Transportation initiative. 

According to California’s plans, a substantial portion of the $8 billion fund will be channeled towards large-scale vehicle projects such as hydrogen-powered buses, with limited emphasis on support for hydrogen-powered passenger cars. This strategy makes sense, as buses and trucks usually have fixed and regular routes. This makes refueling schedules and locations more predictable, avoiding the anxious search for refueling stations that owners of cars like the Mirai might experience.

Forty minutes after leaving the South Pasadena station, Purdy managed to refuel his car at a hydrogen station in West Covina. However, this didn’t please him. “I’m fed up with the weekly treasure hunt,” Purdy commented, “Zero emissions from hydrogen are great, but even California isn’t ready to fully embrace this technology.”