SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — The city of San Francisco’s environment chief doesn’t have many kind words to say about cars or what comes out of their tailpipes.

“Forty percent of our emissions — our CO2 emissions — are coming from vehicles,” said Debbie Raphel director of the S.F. Department of the Environment.

But Raphel was all smiles Thursday when when she got behind the wheel of the new Toyota Mirai — the first major-brand production automobile powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

To “fill ‘er up” you fill a couple of scuba-size tanks with compressed hydrogen gas.

“And then it uses that (hydrogen), combines with oxygen in the atmosphere to generate electricity,” explained Jay Turmell, a product-training specialist with Toyota.

Because it operates using a chemical reaction rather than combustion, the only thing expelled water. The Mirai gets about 300 miles on a gas recharge — but there lies a problem.

“Right now, infrastructure is probably the one thing that’s holding it back a little bit. Because, we made the car and now we need a few more stations to make it work,” Turmell said.

There are only about 20 refueling stations in the entire state and none outside California. Lawmakers have given San Francisco a $250,000 grant to help Bay Area communities work with private industry to build more. The stations would create hydrogen on-site by burning natural gas to create steam.

As we learned from the Hindenburg dirigible disaster, hydrogen is not without its dangers. But so is every current gasoline station for that matter. Backers of fuel-cell cars say the technology is here now to create safe, zero-emission vehicles. But, like all new technology, it takes some effort to get the idea off the ground.

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