Hydrogen vehicle marks arrival of a long-promised automotive era – Sacramento Bee

Posted: Sunday, November 08, 2015

Glenn Rambach, who turned 70 on Saturday, is many things: a hydrogen engineer, a fuel cell specialist, an internationally known expert in energy research, an entrepreneur and a docent at the California Automobile Museum in Sacramento.

On Monday, he can rightfully add “automotive pioneer” to that list.

Rambach, who lives in Cameron Park, on Monday will receive the groundbreaking 2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, one of the first hydrogen FCVs to be sold commercially, from Roseville Toyota in the Roseville Automall.

“Since California is the center of the (Mirai) rollout, Glenn is technically Customer No. 1 in the United States,” said Judy Cunningham, manager of Internet and fleet sales for the dealership.

“I guess you could say that it’s my dream car, considering what I’ve been doing for all these years,” said Rambach, who sought to have the Mirai almost from the moment it became available.

Roseville Toyota, part of longtime local dealer John L. Sullivan’s automotive group, was designated earlier this year as one of only eight California dealerships to receive the Mirai. Cunningham said the Toyota store has locked in 28 of an initial allotment of some 700. California is the first state to get the Mirai, partly because the state already has hydrogen fuel stations in place or in development. A rollout in some Northeast states is planned next year.

It might take some time for (the public) to understand the technology, but I think it is something they will embrace.

Cameron Park resident Glenn Rambach, who received the nation’s first 2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle

Toyota is not the only hydrogen FCV developer. Other efforts involve Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, but the Mirai coming to market now in California is considered a major milestone in a state that has been spending dollars and time to develop its so-called “hydrogen highway.”

Rambach has devoted most of his life to developing alternative forms of automotive power production, particularly hydrogen fuel cell technology.

He earned his master of science in engineering degree in aerospace engineering from Princeton in 1976. Over the years, the energy research engineer has worked at U.S. Department of Energy labs, with prestigious universities and with top automotive industry officials. He has led various teams developing highly complex energy systems.

“I can’t think of anyone more deserving than Glenn to get the first Mirai,” Cunningham said.

Rambach’s work includes developing two different hydrogen storage systems and developing business strategies for fuel cells. His extensive résumé includes a long list of achievements with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He still does consulting work through his company, Third Orbit Power Systems.

Rambach has encyclopedic knowledge of automotive history and has been an early adopter of other milestone Toyota vehicles. He bought a first-generation Camry back in the early 1980s and was an early advocate of the gas-electric hybrid technology in the Toyota Prius, which has been the best-selling vehicle in California multiple times in recent years.

“I spoke to auto industry groups years ago and told them that would happen with the Prius. … Some of them thought I was crazy,” Rambach said.

As for the Mirai, Rambach considers it nothing less than a landmark, game-changing vehicle in the history of automotive transportation.

“The first commercial automobile in 1886 signaled the end of hundreds years of horse (transportation), and for 130 years we had the era of the internal combustion engine. But now, 130 years later, the 2016 Toyota Mirai fuel cell electric vehicle marks the beginning of a new era in automobile propulsion,” Rambach said.

Rambach’s assessment is shared by Bill Elrick, executive director of the West Sacramento-based California Fuel Cell Partnership.

“The sale of the first Toyota Mirai in Sacramento is exactly what we’ve been working toward,” Elrick said. “Fuel cell vehicles from several automakers are now available in California, and more will be coming. We have the first retail hydrogen station in West Sacramento and 45 others are open or in construction across the state.”

Not everyone is sold on hydrogen FCVs. Critics have pointed out that much hydrogen is processed from natural gas and that alternative methods are costly. They cite the relatively few hydrogen fueling stations beyond California’s borders, and they zero in on the Mirai’s relatively steep $57,500 starting price.

However, auto industry expert Jesse Toprak, head of Toprak Consulting Group in Encino, recalled that Toyota’s “Prius was not a profitable proposition at the beginning, but you had a lot of early adopters. I think there’s a lot of support for hydrogen, and I think you’ll have early adopters (in California) for it.”

To sweeten the deal for the Mirai, Toyota is offering owners free fueling for three years up to $15,000. Rambach said he’s happy to fill up at the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s hydrogen pump in West Sacramento or via a portable fueler at Roseville Toyota.

In a test ride in a Mirai prototype last week, Rambach even responded to auto reviewers’ claims that the Mirai lacks sufficient pop by doing several brisk burnouts from a standing start.

Rambach said the car’s long range and easy refueling procedure ultimately will draw buyers to it over time.

“The ability to fill the tank and go 300 or more miles is a major advantage,” said Rambach, who believes that hydrogen FCVs will become commonplace on California roadways over the next 10 to 20 years. “It might take some time for (the public) to understand the technology, but I think it is something they will embrace.”


Video: Toyota bringing fuel cell cars to California

VIP customers were able to test drive the new Toyota fuel cell car Mirai Thursday at the Roseville Automall. The cars have a more than 300-mile range.

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