So, on a hot Sacramento day, we took the wheel of a car that just might be the future of automotive transportation. As the car is built on the Passat platform, it doesn’t exactly look like the car of the future. The controls and ergonomics are all very familiar. But a kilowatt gauge takes the place of a tachometer on the instrument cluster.
Although driven by an electric motor, which doesn’t make much sound in itself, the car produced a steady whining sound. Not unpleasant, but certainly noticeable, it came from the compressor used to push hydrogen into the fuel cell. The power-train packaging is similar to that of a gas-engine car, with the fuel cell stack, compressor, and control software under the hood, and hydrogen tanks at the rear axle. The car also has a lithium ion battery in the middle of the chassis, which provides electricity storage for the regenerative brakes and supplements the flow to the motor.
Putting the car in Drive, we quickly found that we had to push the accelerator all the way in to get going. There was also some shuddering when starting off, which the Volkswagen engineer in the car with us explained away as a software glitch. Initial acceleration was slower than we expected, but we suspect that is how the car is programmed; the electric motor should give it strong initial torque, and the fuel cell doesn’t need any significant time to wind up its electricity output.