Fuel-Cell Vehicles Are Likely Coming (A Few): Who's Winning?

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Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell with mobile refueler

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We're on record with the analysis that electric-car production will far, far outweigh that of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles built over the next decade, and perhaps longer.

Still several carmakers are pressing ahead with plans to build hydrogen-powered vehicles, and now Pike Research has ranked them.

The full results are in their report, "Light Duty Fuel Cell Vehicles," which appears to be so expensive that the company won't even give you a price unless you log into their site.

However, Pike has summarized their results and provided a useful chart showing their assessments of where the major global players in hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are positioned.

The "contenders," as Pike calls them, are five large global automakers. Here's what we know about each:

Pike Resarch chart showing relative positions of carmakers with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle plans

Pike Resarch chart showing relative positions of carmakers with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle plans

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Pike also identifies a second rank of automakers, which it calls "challengers": Ford, BMW, the Nissan-Renault alliance, the Chinese company SAIC, and a British startup called Riversimple.

Why, by the way, are we so pessimistic about hydrogen as a vehicle fuel?

First, and most importantly, there's no distribution system for hydrogen, whereas electricity is essentially everywhere.

To achieve a national network of hydrogen fueling stations, you'd have to build at least 15,000 in exactly the right locations, at perhaps $2 million each. That's $30 billion, not a small chunk of change when we have a $50 billion-plus hole in the funds just to keep our current roads in a state of good repair.

Pike also projects there will be just 5,200 hydrogen fueling stations in the entire world by 2020.

Actress Q'orianka Kilcher poses next to a Honda FCX Clarity at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.

Actress Q'orianka Kilcher poses next to a Honda FCX Clarity at the 2007 Los Angeles Auto Show.

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Second, the wells-to-wheels carbon balance of hydrogen is highly suspect. It's fine if it's made using renewable power, but it takes a huge amount of energy to separate the hydrogen from the other elements to which it binds--which is why hydrogen as a fuel has so much potential energy.

If that electricity comes from burning coal, it's much better (i.e. lower carbon) simply to use it to recharge an electric-car battery than to make, distribute, and use hydrogen in a fuel-cell to propel a vehicle of the same weight.

How do you feel about the prospects for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel in the near and medium term?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

[Pike Research]

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