First generation Focus fuel cell vehicles have performed better than expected, exceeding 865,000 real world miles and earning praise from fleet users around the world, Ford said on Wednesday. The automaker has extended its three-year-old hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle programme for up to 24 months.

A next generation fuel cell vehicle will build on the success of the current programme with improved performance, reliability and efficiency, Ford added.

The fleet of 30 fuel cell vehicles has done over 865,000 'real world' miles "without significant maintenance issues" since the fleet's launch three years ago.

It recently agreed with the US Department of Energy to extend its test programme for up to two years until the next generation system is ready for deployment around 2010.

Ford was one of the first automakers to launch a fleet of hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles in 2005, after unveiling a prototype in late 2003. Its Focus fuel cell test partners include a variety of government agencies in California, Florida, Michigan, Canada, Germany and Iceland, where cold climate testing is expected to result in significant performance improvements on the next generation.

Additional hydrogen projects have included a fleet of 20 H2ICE (hydrogen internal combustion engine) buses, the Fusion Hydrogen 999 that set a land speed record in 2007, a fuel cell Explorer SUV and a plug-in hybrid Edge that uses a fuel cell-powered HySeries Drive.

Ford said that experts maintain that widespread use of H2-fueled vehicles could help eliminate CO2 emissions that contribute to global climate change.

"It's important for Ford to remain active in hydrogen and fuel cell development as a long-term renewable fuel solution," said Roland Krueger, Ford of Europe hydrogen and fuel cell technologies team leader.

According to the automaker, the first generation Focus test vehicles have lasted three times longer and worked much better than originally expected with virtually no degradation in performance.

In light of that success, the Department of Energy, which shares the programme's operating cost with Ford, agreed the extension.

"We've had a lot of great experience with these cars and they're running quite well," said Scott Staley, Ford hybrid and fuel cell development chief engineer in North America. "We expected the fuel cells to be much more problematic under real world conditions, but it's a credit to our development process that the vehicles have been very robust."

Ford supports its fuel cell fleet partners with local project managers and technicians who conduct regular service checks, and collect mileage and performance data for analysis at the Dearborn, Michigan headquarters.

The vehicles have proven highly reliable, averaging 96% "up time". Customer surveys indicate that Ford's fuel cell vehicles have outperformed those of other automakers in areas of acceleration, comfort (primarily air conditioning performance), durability, reliability and mileage.

But Ford's researchers agree that much more work needs to be done before fuel cell vehicles can be commercialised. The biggest challenge according to Rob Riley, Ford fleet manager in California, is building a viable infrastructure with refuelling stations across the country. Currently, there are 70 stations and most of them are not accessible to the public. California is leading the way having recently opened its 24th station.

Honda's US unit recently launched its own fuel cell vehicle test programme in the state (where it is also based), delivering production Clarity models to selected customers, including movie star Jamie Lee Curtis.

Ford sustomer surveys suggest purchase consideration also will be dictated by affordability, reliability and useful life of the vehicle, as well as availability of refuelling stations. In addition, parts availability and an adequate number of trained technicians will be essential to ensure convenient customer service of the vehicles.

A chief concern among fleet partners is limited driving range. Ford is addressing that need by doubling fuel storage pressure on select fleet vehicles allowing twice the fuel to be stored in the same volume.

"With continued advancement and rigorous testing of this technology, automakers will be in able to produce fuel cell vehicles that compete very effectively with internal combustion engines, without compromise to performance, safety, cost or reliability," Riley said.

Fuel storage capacity and other improvements on the current generation of vehicles have put the automaker in a favourable position for the implementation of the next generation, according to Chris Gearhart, Ford fuel cell technical specialist.

The team is expecting significantly increased fuel cell life, better mileage, more efficient use of platinum (a key catalyst), more power from a smaller fuel cell stack, improved reliability, and the ability to start under frozen conditions.

"We're so much farther ahead than we were on the first generation," Gearhart said. "We have better development processes and robust disciplines in the way we're doing things."