When it comes to hydrogen-powered cars, it turns out the future is now. The technology for hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles is a lot more mature than most people realize, and several major automakers have tested and road-ready models available already or hitting showrooms within a year or two.

hydrogen fuel cell Tucson Hybrid SUV

There are, however, two caveats. First, the hydrogen fueling infrastructure is just in its infancy. Second, hydrogen fuel cells are really still prototype technology. None of the vehicles are actually for sale, they are instead leased to consumers. Hydrogen fuel cells are still very expensive to manufacture, and furthermore it will take several years for costs to come down enough to where the technology is really affordable.

California is hydrogen vehicle ground zero

Hyundai Motor Co (KRX:005380) plans to start leasing a hydrogen-powered version of its Tucson Hybrid SUV in California later this year. Toyota Motor Corp (ADR) (NYSE:TM) (TYO:7203) is also planning to introduce a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, and Honda already offers the Clarity FCX for lease in California.

Refueling these vehicles is, however, a major concern. Currently, nine public refueling stations are available in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and 18 more stations are planned. There are long-term plans for a nation-wide network of hydrogen refueling stations, but that is still many years away.

Hydrogen fuel cell powered cars’ performance similar to electric vehicles

Given that hydrogen vehicles are essentially electric vehicles powered by fuel cells instead of batteries, it’s not surprising that they deliver performance and handling very similar to other electric vehicles. Most analysts report that the early model hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a bit slower than their battery-powered peers, but that’s pretty much to be expected given the relative level of research and development.

Hydrogen vehicles do offer the significant advantage of a much longer range than electric vehicles, comparable to gas-powered vehicles in most cases.

Some potential danger to hydrogen refueling, but no incidents to date

Experts point out that building hydrogen refueling stations requires development of safety standards for critical clearances and fire barriers, some of which not lend themselves very well to existing gasoline station locations. That said, the technology has been extensively tested and declared safe, and there have been no major incidents at a hydrogen cell refueling station to date.