Imagine the vehicle of the future, equipped with a hydrogen-fuel-cell-based engine and wireless Internet access for professionals on the go. But it’s not a European sports car. It’s a public bus.

In early December, the city of New Haven announced it received a grant from the Federal Transit Administration to plan and build America’s first two buses designed around hydrogen power. In addition to the other special features, the new buses will sport advertising banners on plasma television screens and will exceed the Americans with Disabilities Act standards for handicapped accessibility.

Negotiations are now in progress to determine which company will win the rights to design, build and oversee the buses. Project organizers, including Lee Grannis, chairman of Greater New Haven Clean Cities, Inc., are quick to point out that the job goes beyond a question of simple engineering.

“It has to be an integrated program,” Grannis said. “It can’t be just a bus company. It can’t be just a single engine producer — it has to be just one company that brings these all under their umbrella.”

According to Grannis, the buses will be designed around two alternative fuel schemes. One bus will use hydrogen to fuel its internal combustion engine, while the other will rely on hydrogen-fuel-cell technology, which converts gaseous hydrogen and oxygen to water and energy.

The buses’ support infrastructure will include a hydrogen refuelling station, one of only three in the eastern United States. New Haven officials hope the refuelling station will revitalize the city’s economy.

“In the emerging hydrogen economy, there are going to be some spin-off benefits from the refueling station,” said Derek Slap, New Haven’s director of public information.

Slap likened the station’s positive influence on New Haven’s alternative fuel economy to the impact of the Yale School of Medicine on the city’s booming biotech industry in the last decade.

According to a press release from the office of New Haven Mayor John DeStefano Jr., such benefits might include the creation of new business ventures, jobs and education partnerships, as well as a possible training program at Gateway Community College.

Once the buses are built and the infrastructure is in place, the system will have to prove itself. Hydrogen power is still a relatively new technology, and project directors feel the FTA-sponsored buses will help determine its effectiveness on the roads.

“Obviously, we hope to gain a substantial amount of knowledge with regards to hydrogen-powered vehicles, and our hope is that they will set the stage for New Haven and the whole region in the future, and hopefully the whole state, in regards to using transit vehicles powered by hydrogen,” said Donna Carter, executive director of the Greater New Haven Transit District.

Carter believes that space-age design and hydrogen-fuel technology will help draw the citizens of New Haven back to public transit.

“One of our hopes is that the vehicle will be very high-tech, very forward looking, and that people will get on it and recognize that mass transit is a very viable way to get to where they want to get to,” she said.