Which Carmakers Are Still Serious About Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles?

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Toyota FCV-R hydrogen fuel-cell concept car, 2012 Detroit Auto Show

Toyota FCV-R hydrogen fuel-cell concept car, 2012 Detroit Auto Show

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Hydrogen fuel-cell cars have not progressed as fast as some companies had predicted 10 or 15 years ago.

No carmaker sells a fuel-cell vehicle in any kind of volume, but plug-in electric cars are on sale in North America, Europe, and Asia, with tens of thousands sold (and likely more than 100,000 within 18 months).

The list of manufacturers aggressively pursuing hydrogen-fueled vehicles has dwindled to three: Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, and Honda.

Cars coming in 2014 and 2015

Toyota has announced plans to put a fuel-cell vehicle on sale by 2015, though its price may be higher than the original target of $50,000.

That car was previewed by the FCV-R Concept shown over the last year, but volume is only expected to be in the "tens of thousands" during the 2020s.

Daimler just last week said it would sell small numbers of its B-Class F-Cell compact starting in 2014, using the next-generation B-Class as a base.

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell

Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell

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It will also launch a larger hydrogen-fueled vehicle coming the following year, the company's U.S. manager of advanced product planning, Sascha Simon, told Automotive News.

The company has now leased roughly 35 B-Class fuel-cell prototypes to drivers in the Los Angeles area, with more on the way. Lease cost is $850 per month.

Compliance cars only?

Honda was actually the first maker to release a so-called "production" fuel-cell car, its FCX Clarity model, into the market in 2008.

Volumes for that lease-only vehicle, however, are measured in dozens per year. So we wouldn't really call it a volume-production vehicle.

And the company has said very little lately about its future plans for fuel-cell vehicles.

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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At least in North America, however, all of these cars are likely to be sold in volumes just sufficient to meet California's Zero-Emission Vehicle mandates.

In other words, like low-volume electric cars announced by several makers for 2012-2014, they'll only be "compliance cars" meant to meet legal requirements.

GM dials down

Meanwhile, General Motors has dialed down its fuel-cell program, which fielded the world's largest test of hydrogen-fueled vehicles under the "Project Driveway" test program.

Five years ago, that project put more than 100 Chevrolet Equinox crossovers, converted to run on electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell, on the roads for testing by consumers, media figures, celebrities, and other influential test drivers.

Now those cars have largely been withdrawn, and some of the hydrogen fueling stations that served them--in White Plains, New York, and Culver City, California, for instance--are shuttered.

2007 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle

2007 Chevrolet Equinox Fuel Cell Vehicle

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The fuel-cell research team has been folded into GM's broader vehicle electrification program, which is focusing on range-extended electric cars like the Chevrolet Volt (and small numbers of all-electric compliance cars like the Chevrolet Spark EV).

Known challenges

The challenges of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are by now well-known, including:

  • Billions of dollars will be required to build a nationwide fueling system of at least 15,000 hydrogen fueling stations;
  • The wells-to-wheels carbon footprint of hydrogen fueling is debatable; and
  • It's far more efficient to use electricity to power a vehicle via a battery and electric motor than to make hydrogen with it, which must then be transported and turned back into electricity at no more than 50 percent efficiency.

Five-year-old show car?

It's probably telling that at last week's 26th annual Electric Vehicle Symposium in Los Angeles, many attendees remarked on the dearth of fuel-cell electric vehicles.

We only saw two there, and from the VIN visible in the windshield, the maroon Honda FCX Clarity on the show floor was the third one ever built--from 2007 or thereabouts.

Is hydrogen "the fuel of the future"--and, as the joke goes, destined to remain that way forever?

We think it's too early to tell. But we'll be curious to see whether fuel-cell cars actually hit the roads in 2015 and, more importantly, in what kind of volumes.


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Comments (29)
  1. I have a strong suspicion that even though fuel cell vehicles may start to trickle through in tiny numbers over the next couple of years, the public are actually wising up to the differences in ownership & running costs.
    It's going to take a crapload of spin to make fuel cells look like a smarter purchase than an electric car.

  2. Hah! Quite the contrary...people have been unloading battery hybrids because after they reach their 80,000 mile operating limit the heavy and expensive batteries have to be replaced!

    Pity the poor fool that bought an 8-track battery car, when mp3 fuel cell cars are on the way.

  3. @John: Entirely false. Hybrids do not have an "80,000 mile operating limit."

    Many hybrid-electric vehicles have reached mileages well over 200,000 in grueling taxi use. Just two examples:

  4. I think the most interesting part of the article is that GM has shuttered its hydrogen fueling stations.

  5. @John: While I didn't note it in the article, I believe those stations--certainly the Culver City one--were operated by Shell. This is one event that shouldn't be blamed on GM.

  6. Of course. GM isn't in the fueling business.

    They were test stations. All that is needed now is standardization on psi and nozzles.

  7. @John Briggs: “GM has shuttered its hydrogen fueling stations.”

    Yes, GM did do that; they foresaw a “chicken-or-egg” question over which to do first: establish H2 fueling stations w/ no cars to buy the fuel, or build electric cars, powered by H2 fuel cells w/ no H2 to fuel them with. (Continued)

  8. (Continued): @John Briggs: Daimler-Benz did not expect that chicken-or-egg question: Germany’s electric grid had been electrolyzing H2 from water ever since World War II, profitably adding the H2 to “natural” heating gas. Now D-B is expanding that to provide even more H2, while keeping their home heating gas outlets. The “natural” (fossil) gas’ H2 provides some of the home heating, while the “natural” fossil gas’ carbon does too; trouble is that that carbon’s burning also adds CO2 to the atmosphere, helping a catastrophic warming of our entire planet’s climate! (Continued)

  9. Comment disabled by moderators.

  10. (Continued): @John Briggs: Extracting enough H2, Germany’s entire gas heating load can be born by this gas. They’re using their amply deployed wind power for that. This can also fuel the electric cars D-B is planning H2 fuel cells for.

    We can do that. We already heat homes with gas. My own sister does that in Massachusetts; passing through the countryside, we can see that many homes (and other buildings) have those big fuel tanks; the market is there. GM can get a second chance. Ford or Chrysler might like it. So might our promising newcomer: Tesla Motors. (Continued)

  11. The only companies still interested in hydrogen are only interested for two reasons 1) they want to keep it around just incase they need it later and 2) because they don't want to end something they've already spent billions on. We don't need or want hydrogen, with gasoline being fazed out slowly we'll be able to wait while battery tech grows. But most electrics are excellent right now so why wait.

  12. Dream on. Fire prone battery cars are just one more liability for automakers. The battery in the Prius boosts the curb weight by 700 pounds! The efficiency per pound of a Prius is the same as a Chevy Suburban. No one wants a car that has to be "recharged" every 40 miles if you go up a hill.

  13. @John: The EPA combined gas mileage rating for the most fuel-efficient 2012 Chevy Suburban is 17 mpg. The rating for a 2012 Toyota Prius is 50 mpg. What on earth are you talking about?

  14. It should not be neglected that an Fuel cell car is an electric vehicle, albeit with smaller battery. Fuel cells are a possible addition to EV technology; for example think of a 25 kWh EV with 25 kW FC. A 25 kW FC is relatively compact, allows sustained driving (and refueling, eliminating range anxiety) while for normal operating, recharging is OK.

    In the challenges part I also miss storage. Hydrogen storage is a huge challenge, and probably the reason why there is no EV/FC combination proposed yet by competitors.

  15. Utter baloney. Hydrogen storage is a known factor. The only changes is that each year the techniques for lower pressure storage get better and better. Probably the biggest drawback is the technology improves so much each week, its hard for a big manufacturer to jump on the bandwagon, and not become out of date 3 months later!

  16. @John: Hydrogen technology is improving "week by week"? RLY?

  17. Really. Hydrogen tech is a large segment, so seeing improvements 'week by week' is common. Fuel cell tech is a fraction of that (well known in the industry), so improvements are seen less often.

    However, the campaign against hydrogen mainly focuses on fuel cells. As fuel cells improve, the campaign expands to the other portions of the hydrogen segment neglecting the advancements in those areas. Of course, you already knew this. [grin]


  18. I think he meant Hydrogen technology is improving weakly.

  19. Very true Jan. If an FC car manufacturer had an EV with a bio-fuel range extender, it would be difficult to compete based solely on price. The FC EV would be the latest wiz bang technology surely, but a bio-fuel ICE + EV would have much of the same performance parameters, emissions outputs, carbon offsets and cost less.

  20. You've completely neglected Hyundai which will supply thousands of SUVs to Europe.

    As far as infrastructure -- the US already produces enough hydrogen for 110 million vehicles. The only effort is the last mile of adding a hydrogen pump to existing stations -- this requires standardization of the nozzles and psi. But not much more.

  21. @John: Most of that hydrogen is (a) already spoken for in commercial usage; and (b) manufactured in industrial areas that may be far from where actual drivers refuel actual cars.

    In my interview, I was startled to learn that the B-Series F-Cell driver who lives in Hollywood has to drive 25 miles to Torrance to refuel her hydrogen-powered Mercedes-Benz, for instance.

    It's slightly more than a "last mile" problem. The White Plains, NY, hydrogen fueling station cost almost $2 million and took 2 years, because no local zoning codes now cover H2 fueling. The minimum national grid of 15,000 stations (even at half that cost) would thus run $15 billion or more.

  22. John I'm convinced we could get by with 5000 or perhaps slightly fewer hydrogen stations.(as kid marc wrote-- grin) Although right now hydrogen fills are 3 to 4 times as expensive as using electrons in the, " plug-in electric cars are on sale in North America, Europe, and Asia, with tens of thousands sold (and likely more than 100,000 within 18 months)." You would have to be a hard core fan of the technology to choose FCEV at those prices over the alternatives.

  23. In 15 years the Hydrogen crowd have not fielded one commercially viable vehicle.

    in 4 years Better Place have built a working infrastructure and are giving me car 275 this week.

    Which is real and which is the illusion?

  24. Love the term "compliance cars" that John Voelcker has introduced(?) and I hope it catches on to help expose the sort of behaviour where carmakers put up a front of social responsibility to keep governments off their backs while really doing just the bare minimum. Misleading governments by spending tons of the taxpayers money on technology they know is a dead end like hydrogen falls in that same category of behaviour. Ironic how the fruits of this wasted effort are turned into compliance cars.

  25. I vote for getting government off their backs to start with.

  26. do people just flat out refuse to acknowledge on demand is the only way to go with hydrogen?

  27. “... Several manufacturers and plenty of other companies are set on hydrogen as the next big thing in green transport, but as yet the technology is very expensive and no manufacturer currently sells a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle ...”.
    Hydrogen’s cost has become much less, now that a new organic catalyst has been developed that replaces the very expensive platinum, as a catalyst.

  28. @Mr. Manwell: As the site moderator, please note that copying & pasting the same comment into multiple articles gets your comments flagged as spam. Please don't do that; if you want to comment on multiple articles, please rewrite them in different words so our system doesn't send me alerts flagging you as a spammer. Thanks.

  29. (Continued): @John Briggs: It has begun gently, as studies of climate history show that worldwide warmings go, with spring 2011's “record” flooding of the Mississippi Valley and the Lake Champlain basin, with that summer's deadly heat waves in Texas and Russia, extreme floods over Pakistan and China, Hurricane Irene’s slow 3-4 MPH passage northward over Atlantic waters that August, its power fed by record 79 degree ocean temperatures, it raked northeastern U.S. with disastrous winds and flash flooding (reopening a deep ravine, near me, that a road had crossed), and 2012's drought-driven wildfires in New Mexico and Colorado (so far by mid-June). Nature has her way. (Continued)

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