NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
A lot may be riding on the compact Honda being leased by the Spallino family of Redondo Beach, Calif., for $500 a month.
The modest-looking car that seats four is the first fuel-cell-powered vehicle being used by a family anywhere in the world. Auto manufacturers like Honda Motor Co. are investing millions to try to make the cars cost-effective alternatives to the internal combustion engine that has dominated personal transportation for the last century.
But even with all the research dollars and development efforts, auto manufacturers like Honda (Research) and General Motors Corp. (Research) can't give a target date when fuel cells are a viable commercial alternative, although GM hopes that fuel-cell autos could be at least a niche vehicle similar to today's gas-electric hybrids within the next 10 years.
Honda leased the FCX fuel-cell car to the Spallino family at the end of June, part of an experiment to see how the cars would hold up to daily driving demands. The New York Times reported that the car cost about $1 million, making it far more expensive than even the many luxury cars that populate Southern California roads and highways.
"When the cars pull up to me, the Porsches and the Bentleys and all that, I just sort of say, well, that's nice, but for what this costs I could buy 10 of those," Jon Spallino told the newspaper.
Despite the cost, the Spallino family is paying $500 a month to lease the FCX from Honda. A Honda executive told the paper that it was important that the family contribute even a relatively modest portion of the vehicle cost in order to get valuable feedback from them.
"The feedback from these consumers will be very astute," Ben Knight, a vice president for research and development at Honda, told the newspaper. "An individual that is paying out of their own pocket for a vehicle will be very conscious of the value received, and the vehicle limitations."
Fuel-cell use hydrogen stored on board and oxygen to produce electricity, leaving only water vapor as a tailpipe emission. They have been around for more than a century and have been used in some commercial vehicle fleets, such as city buses, in earlier tests. Still cost-efficient mobile fuel cells still remain out of reach of the industry at this point.
So far the Spallino family, which was selected by Honda partly because they previously drove a natural-gas powered Honda Civic, give the FCX good marks.
"I use it for everyday life," Sandy Spallino, told the Times. She also drives a Ford Taurus station wagon. "I go to the market in it, I take the girls to school in it, I take them to soccer, just little one-mile jaunts here and there."
Honda convinced a hydrogen supplier to build a refueling station built near the Spallinos' house, the paper reports, but the local fire department, wary of risk of explosion from the flammable gas, has yet to let the station open. So the Spallinos fill up the vehicle at Honda's North American headquarters not far from their home.
The best-known hydrogen vehicle in history is not a good advertisement for carrying hydrogen on board -- the Hindenburg air ship, which exploded and burned in 1937, essentially bringing an end to commercial air ship transportation that was becoming more common at that time.
But auto manufacturers insist that compressed hydrogen on board a vehicle is no more dangerous than gasoline, and the FCX is the first fuel-cell vehicle to be crash tested, according to the Times. Jon Spallino said he's not concerned about the risk of an explosion.
"Everybody says, 'You're driving the Hindenburg,' " he told the newspaper. "I assume that Honda's not going to give me a car that's going to blow up on me."
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