Pioneering Bay Area Hydrogen Car Driver Faces End of Lease

Mercedes B-Class F-Cell, Owners  /   /  By Bradley Berman

Bill Holloway loves the Mercedes-Benz B-Class hydrogen car that he’s been driving for nearly two years. When he was offered the chance to lease the B-Class in 2013, he jumped at it. “I just love the utility of the thing,” he said. “When it became available, I said I’m in. I never even test drove it.”

Since then, in just 22 months, he’s put 36,000 miles on the vehicle, which is powered by gaseous hydrogen. Holloway is one of only about six drivers with a hydrogen fuel cell car in Northern California, and he’s the hands-down leader in terms of miles behind the wheel.

“Driving the B-Class is a breeze,” he explained. “You push down on the accelerator and go. It has a different torque curve than your gas car does.” Hydrogen cars, like battery-electric vehicles, send immediate bursts of power to the wheels, making them a pleasure to drive, especially in city traffic.

Holloway’s only problem is that his two-year lease will come to end in June. It’s still up in the air if he’ll renew. But the two-year period, and all those miles, has given Holloway a great opportunity to assess the experience of driving the small Mercedes commuter that runs on hydrogen. He has some gripes and concerns about the nascent state of hydrogen fuel infrastructure, but remains enthusiastic about the Mercedes B-Class.

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Long-Range Car for Long-Range Commuting

Mercedes makes the B-Class, a compact luxury hatchback, with various powertrains—running on gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, and electricity—for markets outside the United States. In America, the only available version is the plug-in battery-electric model that grants 85 miles on a single charge. The EV version wouldn’t work for Holloway, because his daily round-trip commute is about 160 miles. “I run up more miles than two or three other people together,” he said.

The hydrogen-powered B-Class F-Cell, with its 200 miles of range, was up to the challenge. Even with that amount of driving range, and efficiency estimated at the equivalent of about 60 miles per gallon of gasoline, Holloway needs to refuel everyday.

Besides his affinity for small luxury commuters, Holloway took the two-year lease on the B-Class because it included fuel, insurance and maintenance in the deal. Even at a steep $950 a month, he considered it a good deal because of his ultra-long commute.

The hatchback’s cargo space is also helpful. Unlike some plug-in hybrids, like the Ford C-Max Energi that Holloway has borrowed from his employer, Pacific Gas & Electric, the hydrogen Mercedes B-Class doesn’t compromise any cargo to make room for a battery pack or hydrogen storage tank. Holloway works for PG&E an instructor regarding energy efficiency.

End of Lease Approaching

Nonetheless, Holloway is leaning toward not renewing the lease unless Mercedes gives him a “sweetheart deal.” He said, “I won’t extend it at $950. That doesn’t’ have balance for me, because I retire on January 1, 2017.” Without the need for a long commute, Holloway said that he would simply drive another car he owns.

The leased Mercedes had a few problems over the past 22 months, but the company has provided a free loaner when repairs were needed. A new hydrogen tank assembly was installed and the humidifier needed adjustment. Holloway dismissed these issues as part of the experimental nature of the new technology, which he realized was part of the deal.

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On the other hand, Holloway is not satisfied with the lack of hydrogen refueling stations. There is only one on the Bay Area, in Emeryville, Calif., and it’s primarily used for buses, not retail customers. He said that he didn’t have permission to use the first actual retail location in West Sacramento—not only because it’s far away, but because the standards required to accurately measure the amount of fuel purchased have not been finalized. In Emeryville, he said, “The station will tell me on the pump how much it put in, but the car, which is very accurate, took more than it says on the pump.”

More critically, the Emeryville dispenser has had problems experienced by all five of the Mercedes hydrogen car leaseholders—issues with the cards that initialize the fueling session, problems with the keypad, and even the security gate. “The gate misbehaves occasionally, which always entertaining if you’re standing there,” he said.

A few times, he’s had to quickly return home to retrieve his gas-powered car to get to work. Another B-Class F-Cell driver, according to Holloway, was forced to rent a car.

“I would be happy to have another fuel cell car,” he said. “But the fueling is a pain in the neck, because we only have one station. When it goes down, what do you do? You park the car.”

More than 60 new stations are in some process of planning or construction in California. The vast majority is in Southern California, although there are plans for a handful near where Holloway lives, in Oakland, Hayward and San Ramon. None appear to be beyond the review stages at this time—and none are as convenient as the Emeryville station.

So, as Mercedes, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai prepare to offer their hydrogen vehicles beyond the next set of pioneers like Holloway, the race is on to get those stations built. In the meantime, Holloway will continue to rack up miles on his B-Class F-Cell, and contemplate what he’ll do when the two-year lease is up in a few weeks.

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