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Fuel cell cars refuel during 2002 road rally. (EVWorld.Com)
DaimlerChrysler NECAR and Hyundai Santa Fee refuel along California's Big Sur coast during 2002 fuel cell rally.

California Cruising - Part 5

On this afternoon along the Big Sur, fuel cell technology proved it could work.

By Bill Moore

We were racing down off Ragged Point at the southern end of Big Sur motoring at speeds over 65 mph. Just in front of our Honda Civic Hybrid was a Ford Explorer in the black and white livery of the California Highway Patrol. And ahead of it were the six fuel cars of the California Coast 2003 Road Rally.

As twisting mountain road gave way to twisting coastal road, we pressed the Civic Hybrid around one bend after another, over one swale after another. Off to our right was the blue Pacific, to our left the receding range of mountains that had tenaciously hugged the coast for the last 80 or so miles from Carmel.

We found ourselves just behind the hard charging pack of fuel cell cars by a combination of mistaken identify and dumb luck.

For the first third of the trip, we'd unknowingly been far ahead of the main part of the rally, a confusion which began as soon as we’d left Carmel. Assuming after some thirty miles that we weren't going to catch up until the first refueling stop, we decided to enjoy the awesome scenery and beautiful weather.

We had stopped to take yet more photos and talk to NESEA's Nancy Hazard, who also happened along just behind us. But within less than ten minutes, we suddenly found ourselves watching with slack jaws as the rally flashed past us. A jet helicopter throbbed noisily overhead taking photos and video of the historic event as the cars sped down the Big Sur coast.

We could do nothing but wait for the train of vehicles to pass. When we finally did get back on the road, we found ourselves bringing up the rear. Still, it was a thrill to be a part of this groundbreaking effort.

Finally, some 30 mile further south we came upon one of the few straight stretches of Highway One. There ahead of us were the fuel cell cars parked on an embankment around a flat bed semi-trailer loaded with green tanks of hydrogen. Below them on the side of the road were their support vehicles. This was the first of the day's refueling stops. There would be one more at San Simeon Pier another 30 miles south.

I pulled off the highway behind the last support vehicle and walked up the road of what was once one of the few gasoline stations along the Big Sur. But now it was little more than a patch of broken pavement and the weathered concrete foundations of some long since demolished structure. The NECAR and Hyundai Santa Fe were first in line for refueling. The other four cars waited their turns, their crews chatting in the heat while swatting at persistent swarms of flies.

I took a few photos and walked back down to the car with Nissan's Rick Reinhardt. We talked about EVs and I sold him my first EVWorld sports shirt. But by this time my wife and I were feeling the call of nature and decided to avail ourselves of a roadside rest stop two miles further south on Highway One.

Originally, refueling was supposed to take only about an hour or so, but it wasn't going as planned. It had something to do with the rate at which you pressurized the compressed hydrogen in each vehicle, a process that should only take a few minutes at most with the right equipment. But it seems the flatbed with its bottles of H2 could only refuel each car manually. So, one hour faded into two. Rather than wait around, I decided to head on south and see what the road ahead was like.

It was at the San Luis Obispo County line, as we passed through a recently restored section of the highway that El Nino had washed away, that we passed a sheriff's patrol car parked on the side of the road. He waved at us as we passed. We learned later that he was waiting to escort the rally and probably assumed we were the vanguard. He'd have to wait at least forty-five minutes before the real thing showed up.

Five minutes later, with the worst of Highway One behind us, we stopped at a wonderful wayside called Ragged Point.. It boasts a restaurant, gas station, motel, grocery store and - - most importantly - - a cappuccino shop, all of which sit atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the vast Pacific.

As my wife and I shared a venti-sized cappuccino, we strolled around the cedar shaded grounds enjoying what would be our last good look at the magnificent Big Sur with its thirty mile views and ceaseless blue-green surf.

We also befriended a sheriff's deputy who spotted our rally flag on the Civic Hybrid and came over to talk. He too was also waiting to provide escort for the rally. Curiously though, he was driving a dark maroon PT Cruiser used in the country's DARE anti-drug program. It would be because of this car that we shortly would be thrust into the vanguard of the rally as it raced towards San Simeon.

Another forty-five minutes passed and still there was no rally. We had long since finished the cappuccino, used the bathroom and taken another half dozen photos, including one of a Union Pacific repair truck with an Omaha, Nebraska address on it. I wasn’t even aware there was a railway line anywhere near the Big Sur.

Finally word came over the police radio that the cars were just a few minutes away. So, my wife and I wished the officer the best, got in the Civic Hybrid and drove a mile further down the road to wait for the rally in the shade of some trees.

With flags fluttering, the fuel cell cars zoomed by, two CHP motorcycle officers in the lead, followed by the CHP Ford Explorer.

I watched excitedly as they passed and then spotted a car that wasn't part of the rally, an interloper, a few hundred yards behind. Deciding I didn't want to bring up the rear again, I impulsively popped the clutch and gave the Civic all she had. With tires spinning and spitting gravel, we swerved onto the pavement ahead of the rapidly approaching vehicle.

With the car still accelerating and the batteries pumping kilowatts of energy into the IMA drive, I looked in my rear view mirror just in time to see a set of police lights come on. Instantly knew I had jumped in front of the sheriff's maroon PT Cruiser. I felt a momentary wave of panic. My wife gave me a scolding look as I sheepishly glanced her way. Still I kept on accelerating. I now found myself near the head of the pack and the journalist in me wasn't about to relinquish my position now. So I ignored the lights and kept on going, hoping the deputy would remember us.

He did. After a mile, I knew he wasn't going to pull me over. I stopped holding my breath and concentrated on the moment.

We raced down off Ragged Point and out onto the undulating grasslands that should have been prime cattle country, except I couldn't see any cattle. All this vast rolling grassland seemed strangely devote of people and livestock. I am still not sure why, but in often overcrowded California, it was nice to see such an unspoiled area.

While enjoying scenery that was dramatically different from the the last 60 or so miles, I kept a discrete distance behind the CHP SUV , the PT Cruiser right on my tail. He made no effort to pass so we tore over hills and around sweeping curves at speeds over 65 mph.

Half a mile out head us were the six fuel cell cars scurrying along as if they were racing each other, daring the other to keep up.

For me this was probably the defining moment of the rally. Watching them easily slip over hills and zip around curves in what was almost a ballet of synchronous motion, I suddenly knew this technology was for real.

Sure, it might be a decade or more away from commercial production. Yes it is fraught with numerous technical, political and cultural barriers, but on this day, at 2 PM in the afternoon, 15 miles north of San Simeon, it worked. And it worked damned well!

Times Article Viewed: 4192
Published: 19-Oct-2002

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