April 17, 2019

Shared Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Set to Hit the Streets in California

According to some academic studies, a single shared car can eliminate the need for between nine and 13 personal vehicles.  

Jonathan Palacios-Avila, StratosFuel’s chief executive officer and co-founder

A novel car-sharing service aimed at offering hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) at affordable prices will make new, cleaner-burning mobility options available in disadvantaged areas of two California communities. The StratosShare program, set to launch in Riverside and San Bernardino counties in early 2019, is one of the first efforts in the United States to exclusively combine the car-sharing model with FCEVs under one umbrella.

StratosFuel, the program’s founding company, considers their relationship with the local Clean Cities coalition as key to their success.

“We have been collaborating with Western Riverside County Clean Cities (WRCCC) to ensure that low-cost car sharing is made available within the coalition’s district,” said Jonathan Palacios-Avila, StratosFuel’s chief executive officer and co-founder. “They have been an integral part of our zero-emission car sharing program."

Making Zero Emission Mobility Available to All Consumers

After capitalizing on a $684,421 grant from the California Energy Commission, StratosFuel—which began primarily as a hydrogen fueling station business—started expanding its ventures into the shared mobility space in 2017. The shift began after Palacios-Avila and his colleagues said they recognized needs for: (1) more mobility options for the disadvantaged communities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and (2) increased capacity at its publicly funded renewable hydrogen fueling stations in the area.

“The result of these needs evolved into a low-cost, on-demand FCEV rental program for Riverside and San Bernardino, but StratosShare as a whole is part of a much larger multi-modal transportation effort in California and beyond,” Palacios-Avila said. “On-demand car rental goes hand-in-hand with ride hailing, bike share, and other solutions to increase mobility and connectivity within and between cities. We are taking it one step further by offering a zero-emission option at an affordable price.”

For rates as low as $5 per hour without any membership, refueling, or insurance fees, customers will be able to rent one of the company’s 17 Toyota Mirais and use it within 100 miles of Riverside. In many cases, a StratosShare vehicle will be the cheapest transportation option for consumers who do not own a vehicle. And while drivers will not have to worry about paying to fuel the vehicle themselves, they can be confident they are driving on 100% renewable hydrogen from StratosFuel’s Zero Impact Production (ZIP) facility. As a result, the company estimates their fleet of vehicles could reduce more than 3,000 metric tons of harmful emissions within five years.

“This project is helping create a level of comfort with alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs) among drivers who may not have considered them otherwise, which has led to an increased acceptance and availability of these vehicles in the area,” said WRCCC Coordinator Taylor York. “Since air quality issues go beyond jurisdictional boundaries, this venture is making a positive impact for not only the cities where they operate, but the region as a whole.”

Identifying Partnerships and Expanding the Market

Cultivating strong partnerships up front has been key to paving the way to StratosFuel’s success, Palacios-Avila said. Through a collaboration with Toyota, the company developed a user-friendly smartphone app to allow customers to find and rent the vehicles. Toyota also supplied the company with Mirais, offers free roadside assistance to customers, and marketed the program. Together, the companies are hosting booths and ride-and-drives at local farmers’ markets, festivals, and other events, with the goal of educating a variety of customers. South Coast Air Quality Management District also pitched in to provide marketing support for the effort.

Additionally, WRCCC has worked alongside the company for months to spread the word at their stakeholder meetings and local events.

“We are incredibly excited to have StratosShare in our region,” York said. “We have had hydrogen fueling in Riverside for a long time, but this region is not typically seen as a key market for hydrogen. Through this and other efforts, we are looking forward to demonstrating how hydrogen can be successful here.”

In this vein, the coalition has been working closely with StratosFuel on creative ways to demonstrate the benefits of StratosShare to the community.

“Our region is unfortunately still heavily dependent on automobiles, including in our low-income areas,” York said. “We’ve partnered with StratosShare to demonstrate to all residents how this program is not simply another rideshare or rental car program, but a flexible clean transportation option that gives them an alternative to owning an expensive vehicle.”

Solving Challenges and Looking to the Future

The company plans to place the shared vehicles at convenient and accessible locations, including downtown parking garages, universities, and high-density housing areas. Customers will have the option of returning the vehicle where they picked it up or at other designated drop-off spots. To enable this flexibility, the company is working with a variety of partners to identify parking locations.

“We have learned that parking is a scarce commodity and a sensitive issue,” said Palacios-Avila. “According to some academic studies, a single shared car can eliminate the need for between nine and 13 personal vehicles. We are communicating this kind of information to our community partners to confirm our vehicles are conveniently located.”

The company also developed creative ways to ensure the vehicles’ tanks stay full. Fueling the Mirais should only take about five minutes, but drivers who visit a StratosFuel location during their rental will receive 30 minutes of free rental time. Each vehicle has its own fuel card and the StatosShare app includes step-by-step instructions, with 24/7 customer service support available by phone. In cases where the fuel gauge dips below a quarter tank, StratosFuel will dispatch a team member to fill the vehicle between rentals.

StratosShare already has 500 pre-registered users, just a few months before their scheduled launch. As the company looks to the future, Palacios-Avila says they will tap their vehicle-use data to determine whether the demand exists for more vehicles and more fuel. In preparation for this growth, StratosFuel is already expanding their ZIP facility to increase production by 150% by 2020 and pursuing new fueling station locations.

“Based on our pre-launch testing, the vehicles run smoothly, and the app software works well,” Palacios-Avila said. “We are excited to learn the market and assess the possibly of adding more vehicles to our fleet in the future.”

Project at a Glance
Fleet Type: Shared passenger vehicles
Fuel: Hydrogen
Vehicles: 17 Toyota Mirai FCEVs
Fueling Infrastructure: Public hydrogen stations, operated by the founding company
Motivations: Increasing affordable mobility options in disadvantaged communities and increasing capacity at publicly funded hydrogen stations

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