California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed an executive order intended to make California the leader in introducing environmentally friendly hydrogen-fuelled cars.

Reuters said the former action film star well known for his fuel-slurping Hummers, drove a hydrogen-powered Toyota SUV to refuel at a special station at the University of California at Davis and then signed an order to encourage the use of fuel cells.

“I will sign an executive order creating a public-private partnership creating hydrogen highways all over the state of California by the year 2010,” he reportedly said, adding: “Hundreds of hydrogen fuelling stations will be built and these stations will be used by thousands of hydrogen-powered cars and trucks and buses. This starts a new era for clean California transportation.”

Reuters noted that, although industry experts say it will be at least a decade or longer before hydrogen cars could become common, backers said Schwarzenegger was helping to prod their gradual introduction.

“This is very important; we need signals from government,” Daniel Sperling, director of the university’s Institute of Transportation Studies, told the news agency, adding: “This is a transition process and it will be a slow transition process.”

Reuters said California already has 22 hydrogen refuelling stations; Schwarzenegger hopes there will soon be enough such stations across the state to encourage motorists to drive FCVs.

“If you space them roughly every 20 miles, just to make sure a consumer can find the fuel easily, that pencils out to roughly 200 stations,” California Environmental Protection Agency secretary Terry Tamminen told the news agency.

The stations “will send the signal to carmakers that there is going to be a fueling infrastructure … that they can begin to send vehicles to the showrooms with confidence to break that chicken-and-the-egg situation,” he added.

He told Reuters hydrogen stations cost about $500,000 and would be funded by private and federal funds, not state money.

Reuters noted that US president Bush has sought a 43% increase in federal spending to develop fuel cell cars and related service stations and, last year, launched a five-year, $1.2 billion research initiative with the aim of reducing dependence on foreign oil and putting fuel cell cars on the road by 2020.