LOS ANGELES - Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced an environmentally friendly Hummer on Friday - but not exactly the hydrogen-powered car he promised voters he would build when he campaigned for office.
Criticized by environmentalists for owning a gas-guzzler, Schwarzenegger said during last year's recall campaign that he would convert one of his Hummers to run on hydrogen. Though he hasn't done that, the governor did introduce an alternative at an event that mixed environmentalism and stagecraft: a hydrogen-powered Hummer custom-built by General Motors at his request.
The governor drove the shiny blue SUV to a hydrogen fueling spot at Los Angeles International Airport to tout his $100 million plan for a "hydrogen highway" of such stations. But the event betrayed the current limitations of hydrogen power even as it celebrated the technology's progress.
Though Schwarzenegger arrived in the low-pollution vehicle, he left in a gasoline-powered SUV that typically gets about 15 miles per gallon. It was a pragmatic decision, given that the hydrogen Hummer needs to refuel every 50 miles and there are only about a dozen fueling stations across the state.
Schwarzenegger said the LAX station would be the first designed for use by the general public rather than government vehicles. But a builder conceded the station wouldn't be open to the average driver for at least 5 to 10 years.
The fact that the hydrogen Hummer was new - and not a retrofit from Schwarzenegger's personal fleet - was almost lost amid the razzle-dazzle of the new technology.
"I promised I would turn one of my Hummers into a hydrogen Hummer. Today I drove one of those," the governor said.
However, under questioning by reporters, Schwarzenegger clarified that the Hummer wasn't his.
"I wanted to turn one of my Hummers into a hydrogen-fueled car," he said. "But then, General Motors was so inspired that they said, 'Wait a minute - why don't you let us build one? Let us build a prototype."'
GM said it began developing the hydrogen Hummer in late spring. The company wanted to develop a new vehicle instead of retrofitting an old one because it wanted its work to have long-term, practical applications, spokesman David Caldwell said.
The company said it owns the Hummer unveiled Friday but is lending it to California to help raise awareness about hydrogen technology. Caldwell said he was uncertain of the details but didn't think the state was paying for the use of the vehicle.
Schwarzenegger was the first person to buy a Hummer, a civilian version of the military vehicle that caught the public's attention during the Gulf War. GM estimates the latest version of the vehicle, the 6,400-pound H2, gets 10 to 13 miles per gallon. Dealers put the figure at 8 to 10 mpg.
Since the election, Schwarzenegger has reduced his fleet from seven Hummers to three, and he rarely drives any of them, spokeswoman Terri Carbaugh said.
"My Hummers are now in the garage, because I get driven by the CHP all the time," the governor said.
Schwarzenegger signed an executive order in April calling for the construction of a network of stations offering hydrogen fuel up and down the state within six years.
The program is expected to cost $100 million.
That would have the stations ready by 2010, the year when automakers say they hope to have hydrogen vehicles available to consumers.
But the target date may be optimistic, said Susan Szita Gore, a spokeswoman for Praxair, which worked with BP to build the fueling station where Friday's event was held. She said it may be 5 to 10 years before drivers can pull up to the station and fill their cars with hydrogen.
Several other government agencies are also experimenting with hydrogen-powered vehicles, including the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which plans to retrofit 35 Toyota Prius hybrid cars to use hydrogen instead of gasoline.