Is Hydrogen the Modern Take on 1950s Atomic Optimism?

Ever since I caught Dan Neil's somewhat conflicted piece in the LA Times about the futility of the Honda FCX Clarity, Beauty for beauty's sake, I've sought ways to rebut his arguments that regardless of the car's beauty, its enormous technological advances, and its "smooth, flawless" performance, it is a futile vehicle, the fuel cell technology of which is stuck in a "tragic cul-de-sac in the search for sustainable mobility."

Neil is no slouch; he's an award-winning writer with years of automotive experience. He engages in some modest number-crunching, concluding that the Tesla Roadster's "per-mile costs in electricity are roughly one-quarter what they are in the FCX Clarity."

In short, he's not on the hydrogen bandwagon, saying it's a "lousy way to move cars."

Then I came across the most most ambitious concept car of 1957: The Studebaker-Packard Astral.

In the words of Marty McFly, “This sucker’s nuclear.”

Studebacker-Packard put together the atomic-powered Astral (although it was never actually equipped with a reactor) with a gyroscopic balancing mechanism that in theory would have allowed the vehicle to ride on one well-balanced wheel. It also had a force-field to prevent collisions, as well as the ability to hover over land and water because with atomic power, anything’s possible!

Of course these were the ‘50s, optimism was the drug. In 1955 Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt Corporation, told the New York Times, "Nuclear powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within 10 years", and that same year, David Sarnoff, RCA Chairman, wrote that in the near future, "Atomic batteries will be commonplace."

My point? Maybe hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the 21st century's version of the atomic Astril—a bit of technological wishful thinking misinformed by the Silicon-driven optimism of the 1990s.

Quotes sourced: Cerf, Christopher, Navasky, Victor. The Experts Speak: The Definitive Compendium of Authoritative Misinformation. Pantheon Books, NY. 1984.

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