LOS ANGELES — Every day and sometimes twice a day, the purported future of the automotive industry flows through a small, cold tube from a delivery truck to an inlet at a refueling station in Los Angeles.
The station looks like any other in a major urban area except for a tall, blue half-arch off to one side near a big brick building. This is where hydrogen cars come to fill up.
Patrick Walton has been a truck driver for hydrogen supplier Air Products for two years, cruising L.A. with around two dozen compressed-hydrogen tanks in his trailer. His job is to refill the station's storage tank, just as gasoline delivery drivers bring refined petroleum to any of the tens of thousands of gas stations in the U.S.
When Walton pulls up, he has to set up a series of safety devices around his truck, then open all of the valves on his tanks by hand. At this station, while the storage tanks are filling, his truck blocks access to some of the gasoline pumps, which is why he's supposed to refuel the station at night. If something goes wrong or the hydrogen supply runs low, though, he has to visit during the day.
The three automakers that offer hydrogen cars have sold or leased around 3,000 vehicles in the last few years. They are all in the L.A. or San Francisco Bay areas, since that's where the state's more than 30 operating hydrogen stations are.