A smiling Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wheeled a shiny new Hummer into a hydrogen fueling station at Los Angeles International Airport on Friday in what aides called a fulfillment of a campaign promise to convert one of his tank-sized gas guzzlers to run on the alternative fuel.
"Last year, I promised that I would turn one of my Hummers into a hydrogen Hummer," Schwarzenegger said after driving through a ceremonial red banner and emerging from the vehicle with the vice chairman of General Motors. "Well, today, I drove up in one of these."
However, the entire made-for-media event, staged before about 300 dignitaries, hydrogen power advocates and journalists, had more than a hint of Hollywood make-believe.
The blue Hummer the actor turned governor drove was not one of his own, but a specially made prototype built from the ground up by a worldwide team of GM engineers. Despite its burly looks, it is a showpiece that cannot be taken off-road, company officials said.
The hydrogen fuel pump nozzle the governor pushed into the Hummer's tank as he posed for the cameras doesn't work yet. The station is not set to open for a month.
Nonetheless, Schwarzenegger, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and others hailed the hydrogen Hummer's arrival as a landmark in the development of the fuel as a potential successor to petroleum.
"What's exciting to us is that the governor puts a stick in the ground and says, 'This is the future,' " said C.D. McDonnell, vice president of Praxair Inc., a Houston company that will provide the hydrogen for the LAX station.
At one point, Schwarzenegger, who signed an executive order this year to help build a "hydrogen highway" of fueling stations around the state, likened the moment to the Wright brothers taking flight at Kitty Hawk.
"This is a modest beginning, but [hydrogen cars] hold the promise of a revolution," Schwarzenegger said. "The Wright brothers, the computer pioneers and other visionaries did not listen to the naysayers."
Some energy experts are wary of hydrogen's promise.
Although hydrogen is the most plentiful element in the universe, isolating it so that it can be used as a fuel source requires a lot of energy, which has to be generated somehow. What's more, much of the hydrogen fuel currently available is made from coal and other fossil fuels. As a result, critics question whether hydrogen fuel is as good for the environment as boosters claim.
Also, the fuel-cell technology that some believe could best power hydrogen automobiles for the masses remains extremely expensive and full of limitations.
The Hummer that Schwarzenegger drove Friday was not powered by fuel cells but by hydrogen gas in an internal-combustion engine, just like engines powered by gasoline. Some experts predict that fuel-cell cars won't be ready for inexpensive mass production for decades, if ever.
Hydrogen supporters acknowledge that tall hurdles remain, but say Schwarzenegger is helping surmount the biggest by persuading the public that the alternative fuel has serious potential and is safe. Many people still associate hydrogen with the Hindenburg disaster. Yet some scholars have concluded that it was the covering on the luxury airship that caught fire in 1937, not the hydrogen.
"You can get by all the technical problems, but you still have to convince people that hydrogen is viable," said Carol Battershell of BP America Inc.
BP helped design the LAX hydrogen dock. Though it will initially be open only to LAX personnel and government workers driving the current small fleet of hydrogen cars, officials plan to eventually open the station to the public.
Schwarzenegger promised to convert one of his Hummers to run on hydrogen during last year's recall campaign, after environmentalists attacked him for owning a garage full of the low-mileage vehicles. On Friday, he said he still loved his Hummers, but no longer had a chance to drive them because he is chauffeured by the California Highway Patrol.