United Parcel Services (UPS) yesterday deployed three fuel cell-powered Dodge Sprinters for service in Los Angeles, Sacramento and Ann Arbor, MI. This launch marks the first use of medium-duty delivery vehicles powered by fuel cells in the U.S., made possible by an alliance between UPS, DaimlerChrysler AG, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The new vehicles, which use DaimlerChrysler’s second-generation fuel cell technology, offer acceleration equal to a gas- or diesel-powered UPS vehicle and an operating range of 155 miles, matching the range of a diesel-powered Sprinter.

This represents a marked performance improvement over a previous fuel cell models used by UPS in Germany, the company noted. Compared to the first-generation fuel cell Sprinter, UPS’s U.S. fuel cell models feature a 20% increase in powertrain efficiency, a 40% increase in range, and a 45% increase in peak engine power, according to DaimlerChrysler.

“Our…test programs showed the on-road reliability of fuel cells is excellent, equivalent to our current fleet,” said Chris Mahoney, UPS senior vp- global transportation services in a press release. “But what’s truly exciting is how fast the technology is progressing.”

“A lot of people still say that a hydrogen infrastructure is 30 to 40 years away, but now that EPA and Department of Energy (DOE) are focused on it we’re seeing that pace of technology development really start speeding up,” Paula Smith, UPS spokesperson, told Fleet Owner.

Fuel cell technology works chemically via a hydrogen reaction with oxygen and converting it into electricity without combustion, according to the EPA. Many also believe a hydrogen-based economy is environmental “holy grail” of sorts because its only waste products are water and heat — which makes essentially a zero-emissions vehicle.

EPA added that working through government-industry partnerships is how fuel cell technology is evaluated for its practicality in real-world applications – dealing with such as issues like fuel economy, cold-weather operation and driving performance.

At a press conference yesterday in Los Angeles, UPS’s Mahoney said the company looks forward to reaping the benefits of reduced maintenance expenses due to a drive train that is more reliable than that of a gas or diesel engine.

“The drivers were here at the event and they had the opportunity to test drive the new vehicle,” said Smith. “They felt it has the same handling and pickup and all the things that matter a great deal to the driver— they say its 100% comparable to diesel vehicles.”

The new vehicles also feature a 10% increase in cargo carrying capacity compared to the diesel-powered Sprinters now in use by UPS, the company said, in part because the vehicle is simply much larger. However, the vehicle’s more compact powertrain also allows for greater cargo space, UPS noted.

Fuel cell technology also eliminates the need to house an engine in front of the vehicle, with the Sprinter instead housing the powertrain in the floor of the vehicle. “Now that things don’t have to be housed under the hood, that could open a whole lot of possibilities for the vehicle in terms of cargo,” Smith said

Despite the environmental benefits the hydrogen-powered Sprinter offers, there are still some major hurdles to be overcome before we can expect to see fuel cells as a commercially viable option. “While it’s still more expensive to manufacture a fuel cell vehicle, DaimlerChrysler is working hard to perfect the technology and lower those costs. The refueling infrastructure is the next critical need,” Mahoney said. “Only by making hydrogen as broadly available as gasoline or diesel can passenger cars and fleets truly reap the environmental and economic benefits.”

According to an article posted by Reuters, the cost of producing a single fuel cell automobile can run up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. UPS has not disclosed the cost of each Sprinter.

Rueters reported that California has about 10 hydrogen refueling stations used primarily by commercial fleets. By this fall, the nation’s first hydrogen station for public use will be completed in Washington, D.C. in a joint venture between Shell Oil and General Motors Corp. (GM). That filling station will be used for the fuel cell vehicles GM plans to lease to the U.S. Postal Service, Reuters said. The new vehicle in Michigan will use EPA’s filling station in Ann Arbor, MI.

This program is part of EPA’s and the DOE’s initiative, led by the Bush Administration, to deploy and evaluate fleets of fuel cell vehicles and to build a national hydrogen infrastructure.

The deployment of the new Sprinters marks the second phase of a multi-year fuel cell testing program. In the first stage UPS was provided with an “F-Cell”, a fuel cell-powered Mercedes-Benz A-Class car, which UPS modified for early-morning package deliveries in southeastern Michigan.