DEARBORN, MI – Like the Energizer Bunny, Ford Motor Co.’s hydrogen fuel-cell test vehicles just “keep going and going and going,” says a top engineer.

A fleet test launched in 2005 consisting of 30 Ford Focus Fuel Cell Vehicles has exceeded expectations, with 26 of the original cars still on the road.

“After one or two years, we we’re going to retire them,” Gerhard Schmidt, chief technical officer, vice president research and advanced engineering, tells Ward’s. “But they’re still running.”

According to Ford’s global fuel-cell team, the first generation Focus FCVs have lasted three times longer and worked much better than expected, with virtually no degradation in performance.

The program was launched in 2005 with ’04 Focuses equipped with fuel cells made by Canada-based Ballard Power Systems.

Originally, the fleet was to be retired in March 2008, but the unexpected robustness of the vehicles pushed the test’s run through March 2009. The pattern repeated itself, with the program extended until March 2010 and now March 2011.

To date, the fleet has racked up a combined 1.3 million “real-world, on-road miles (2.1 million km),” Ford says, noting vehicles still are operating in Vancouver; Dearborn; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Aachen, Germany.

While Schmidt says the test cars are “surprisingly reliable,” production versions likely are a ways off.

“We still have to get the infrastructure in place, and we’re working on commercialization targets to bring costs down,” he says.

Industry-wide there may be “a small number of (fuel-cell) vehicles on the road by 2015,” Schmidt adds. “But if you’re talking real commercialization with 100,000 units, it will take a little longer than expected.”

Those involved in the Focus FCV project say it will be worth the wait.

“The (Focus FCV) is quiet and peppy,” says Peter Lisicin, customer product support coordinator for the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation.

“I got to drive one every day for a month, cruising around downtown, showing them off – and they’re phenomenal.”

Vancouver-based AFCC, formed in 2007 by Ford and Daimler AG, is centered on the former automotive division of Ballard Power Systems.

Initially, the joint venture was held 50.1% by Daimler, 30% by Ford and 19.9% by Ballard. But Ballard last year sold its equity to an unnamed financial institution to raise capital. Those shares are expected to be purchased by Ford in 2013.

AFCC is one of a handful of companies still operating Focus FCVs. Lisicin says other than a few normal mechanical issues, the vehicles have been performing exceptionally well.

“We have one vehicle right now, and it’s somewhere in the range of 66,000 miles (106,216 km) (on the odometer), and it’s still running fine and driven daily,” he says.

FCVs recently have been overshadowed by battery-electric vehicles on the way from a number of auto makers, including Ford.

But Gerhardt says BEVs are not the ultimate solution to weaning America off its oil dependency.

“For short distances, (BEVs) are ideal; for long distance, (it’s) hydrogen fuel cells,” he says.

bpope@wardsauto.com