A handful of lucky UCLA drivers — who unfortunately have long commutes — are about to get a free car, free fuel and free parking for three months.
Chancellor Gene Block, left, and Administrative Vice Chancellor Jack Powazek admire one of UCLA's prototype hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
And the catch? They’ll agree to join a hand-selected group that will carpool to and from campus in a cutting-edge, hydrogen fuel-cell car.
It’s part of UCLA’s Sustainable Transport Innovation (STI) program, which is currently partnering with Toyota to put the tried-and-tested vehicles through their paces on a daily Southern California commute. The project allows UCLA Transportation to encourage a dozen new people to carpool and lowers the university’s emissions, while Toyota gets to find out what people think about driving hydrogen fuel-cell cars.
Transportation has already gathered a list of interested Bruins who live near each other in Burbank, Torrance and Irvine, cities which all have the right kind of hydrogen fueling station. The department will choose the participants within the week, and the plan is to select new groups every quarter, said Matthew Hissom, a senior transportation planner in the department.
“This region has more fueling stations than almost anywhere else,” Hissom said. “So we have an opportunity to let employees drive these vehicles, and let Toyota survey people about what it’s like to drive these in a daily commute, which you couldn’t do in most places.”
UCLA received four Toyota Fuel Cell Hybrid (FCHV-adv) vehicles for the project.
The carpoolers will need training on how to use the hydrogen fueling stations, but that’s about it for the learning curve, Hissom said.
Toyota was intrigued by UCLA’s proposal to go beyond short test drives and gauge drivers’ opinions of the cars by letting them actually commute in them for months, said David Karwaski, Transportation’s senior associate director for planning, policy and traffic systems. Los Angeles’ challenging traffic also makes the city an ideal test bed, Karwaski added. The car company donated four Toyota Fuel Cell Hybrids to UCLA for the next two to three years. The cars are essentially handmade prototypes, Karwaski said, sounding almost envious as he described the program.
“These cars are not near-term technology,” Karwaski said. “At best, you could buy one in four to five years. It’s quite spiffy technology and very appealing, and I think there are enough people like me who are interested in leading-edge tech that they’d be happy to drive one. It’s almost a perk of working at UCLA to have an opportunity to participate in a program like this.”
The benefits to UCLA go further than cutting emissions and converting commuters to carpoolers — there’s also an academic advantage. Transportation is teaming up with the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability (IoES). Professor Matthew Kahn, an IoES environmental economist, will study the carpoolers to find out more about what motivates people to take the leap to green transportation. Toyota’s studies will focus more on customer satisfaction with the vehicles’ performance.
UCLA has a long history with alternative-fuel vehicles: Transportation began buying alt-fuel cars in the late ’80s, and now nearly two out of every five vehicles in the campus fleet run on alternative fuel, from the low-speed electric vehicles to the CNG (compressed natural gas) campus-express buses. By offering lower-priced carpool parking and subsidizing bus fares, the department has convinced many Bruins to switch to alternative transportation, such as buses, bikes and vanpools. While nearly three-quarters of Los Angeles County commuters drive alone, only 53.5 percent of UCLA drivers do.
The campus hopes to bring that to 50 percent to reduce pollution, said Karwaski, but that means that half of UCLA commuters will still drive alone, so getting them into alternative-fuel cars will be the next step.
“Most people are still driving in conventional vehicles,” he said. “So we have to think about how to use conventional modes, while still weaning off gasoline. That’s why we’re putting effort and resources into this project.”
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are similar to electric vehicles, Karwaski explained. They have an electric motor, but instead of getting electricity from a battery pack, the electricity comes from the fuel cell.
“What comes out of the fuel cell and the tail pipe is water — actual, potable water,” Karwaski said. “And if you have a full tank, the range is over 300 miles, so you eliminate some of the anxiety that electric-vehicle drivers tend to have about only having 80 miles between charging.”
To get a full tank, drivers have to squeeze in as much hydrogen as possible, so the higher-pressure the fueling station, the fuller the “gas” tank gets, Hissom explained. Transportation decided to find carpoolers living in Burbank, Torrance and Irvine because those cities each have a high-pressure station. Carpoolers can also fill up at a lower-pressure station at Santa Monica Boulevard and Federal Avenue to get a half tank, Hissom added.
The first carpools will begin commuting together by the end of October, once they’re trained to operate the vehicle and fill up the tank. Three cars will go on the road, and one will stay at UCLA as a back-up, Hissom said — it's not the kind of program you can volunteer for. Transportation selected the carpoolers by contacting parking-permit holders who live within a few miles of the chosen hydrogen stations. After checking for people with similar work schedules — and clean driving records — carpools of three to four people per car will be created, Hissom said.
Next quarter, it will be someone else’s turn. Learn more about the program here.