Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Still Important, Automakers Say

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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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When anything is referred to as "not dead yet," it's usually dead--or very close.

But despite the headline reference to a legendary Monty Python skit (NSFW), a recent post from Pike Research makes the case that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles likely have at least a limited role to play in future green-car lineups.

Real hurdles

Given the current wording of California Zero-Emission Vehicle rules, each hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is worth more in clean-air credits than an electric car of similar size. That alone may put some number of hydrogen-powered cars on California roads.

As Pike Research writer Lisa Jerram notes, "it’s clear that companies are still committed to this effort even though there are real hurdles in the way."

The carmakers who remain most serious about selling hydrogen fuel-cell cars are Toyota, Honda, Daimler, and perhaps General Motors.

At last month's World Hydrogen Energy Congress, those makers reaffirmed their intentions to offer production fuel-cell vehicles in or around 2015.

Volume pushed out to 2020

What has changed, Jerram notes, is the timing for "large-scale uptake," which makers now say won't happen until 2020 or so.

By that time, by comparison, the global fleet of 1 billion vehicles will likely contain 1 to 2 million plug-in cars, with hundreds of thousands more coming off production lines every year.

To make that large-scale production of fuel-cell cars practical, there's got to be a hydrogen fueling infrastructure in place, at least in the regions where they'll be sold.

That's now happening in a few places. While several hydrogen stations in Los Angeles have closed in recent years, several new ones are scheduled to come online this year and next.

CA to get 68 hydrogen stations by 2015

Honda Solar Hydrogen Station prototype with 2010 Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle

Honda Solar Hydrogen Station prototype with 2010 Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle

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Honda's Steve Ellis says that by the end of 2015, a total of 68 hydrogen fueling stations is planned to be operative in the Los Angeles Basin, Santa Barbara, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area--with a few along the freeway corridor between Los Angeles and San Francisco to permit long-distance travel.

That total contrasts with the more than 10,000 gasoline stations found today in the state.

The California Fuel-Cell Partnership, he notes, will focus on locating future hydrogen fueling stations within existing gas stations--which are already established at major traffic locations and which fit the existing travel patterns of California drivers.

First Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle delivery, Newport Beach, Dec 2010

First Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle delivery, Newport Beach, Dec 2010

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In Germany, Federal and state funding to build a network of hundreds of hydrogen fueling stations now totals in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

But the current political climate makes that kind of funding seems highly unlikely in the U.S. And Jerram notes that Toyota, Honda, and Daimler representatives at the conference "were unanimous that they should not have to foot the bill for infrastructure build-out."

Pros and cons remain

The advantages of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles over battery electrics continue to be both longer range (up to 500 miles versus perhaps 300 miles) and quick refueling (5 to 10 minutes versus 30 to 60 minutes for a quick charge to 80 percent of pack capacity).

The drawbacks, as always, are the lack of a widespread hydrogen fueling infrastructure, the cost of the fuel cells themselves (expected to come down over time and with volume production), and the carbon footprint of hydrogen production itself.

2009 Honda FCX Clarity

2009 Honda FCX Clarity

Enlarge Photo

And, as electric-car advocates point out, essentially every U.S. citizen lives in a residence with electric power--meaning that battery recharging infrastructure is a "last 100 feet" challenge rather than the million-dollar-plus cost of establishing a new hydrogen fueling facility from scratch.

Today, it looks like small numbers of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles will start appearing in some markets around 2015, but volume production isn't likely to arrive for a decade or so.

By that time, will plug-in electric cars (of all varieties) have become the established green technology? Or is there still a role to play for hydrogen fuel?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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Comments (20)
  1. Of course certain automakers are saying its still important. They've got millions tied up in R&D and they don't want it to look like they wasted that money. They're also keeping it around just incase they need it. I've always thought the one thing keeping hydrogen at a stand still is supply and demand, there are no stations so there is no interest in buying hydrogen cars and if there are no hydrogen cars for sale why build the fueling stations. But we all have electricity so you can buy an electric car and refuel it anywhere with a plug, it won't be a fast charge but my point is the power is there the electric infastructure has been in place for several decades. All you need to do for a level 2 charge is call an electrician and install it.

  2. Auto makers are scraping ridiculous battery cars. No one wants to go 20 miles uphill to a mall and have their car get stuck with a drained battery.


  3. Interesting link I found...Impressive!
    "New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be worlds first"


    Not sure what we are waiting for since every other country is pursuing fuel cell technology? Where is the Senator / Congressman leadership?
    How about we take $1billion of the already $500billion we spend on "securing middle eastern oil fields" and apply it to these types of models? Senator????
    "It is here today and it is deployable today," said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    Note the Honda "Clarity" FCV (fuel cell vehicle) driving away in the video... Looks ready to me.

  4. Fuel Cell = The Walking Dead

  5. Fuel Cell = Last Man Standing

  6. This article is complete nonsense. Every major automaker has abandoned unworkable battery cars in favor of fuel cell vehicles. The London Olympics are featuring hydrogen vehicles in service since 2010.

  7. @John: RLY? By my calculations, "every major automaker" has at least one battery electric car to be introduced between now and 2016.

    Please provide me a list of the hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that will be introduced into volume production by "every major automaker" over the same period now that they have all "abandoned" electric cars. So far, the list *I* have is three: one from Toyota, one from Mercedes-Benz, and one from Honda.

    I'm eager to hear your information about the entries from the other dozen or so global carmakers--since as far as I'm aware they don't exist--but do please educate me.

  8. Here you go:


  9. @John: Thanks for the link. In it, I count Toyota, Honda, Daimler & Hyundai. That's four makers. Which is a far cry from "every major automaker" in the global industry, as you said at the top of the thread.

    Not mentioned: GM, Ford, Chrysler-Fiat, VW Group, BMW, Nissan-Renault, Peugeot-Citroen, Mitsubishi, or a single Chinese company.

    The list of the missing is twice as long as the list of makers who ARE planning fuel-cell cars. And their plans total in the thousands or tens of thousands, not in the hundreds of thousands (in 2016) like the battery electrics you say have been "abandoned" by "every" major maker.

    Does that not seem a tad inconsistent to you?

  10. Missing from both of your lists is Mercedez-Benz, which just opened the world's first facility dedicated to produce automotive fuel cell stacks. I'd say that's a ringing endorsement of fuel cell vehicles. Here's a link:

  11. @Marta: Daimler is the parent company of Mercedes-Benz. So they are included.

  12. @John Voelker, It is my understanding that GM is still actively developing/refining its fuel cell technology although they have been quiet recently. BMW and Toyota just inked a technology cooperation contract regarding development of fuel cells.

    As a proud Volt driver, I see fuel cells as complementary to BEV technology. I would love to see a fuel cell supplementing the plug, and replacing the gasoline generator altogether. Think of hydrogen as portable electricity. Plug in when you are home, fill up in 5 min. with H2 on the road. I personally think it is the ideal solution.

  13. Well, hydrogen is a nice source. Unless we create it from water, it is going to be from fossil fuel again. The second problem with hydrogen is the fact that it is extremely flammable or explosive. It will only take one idiot to blow up a huge area with a terrible hydrogen leak...

  14. That myth again? Unlike gasoline that flows downward and allows flames to burn, should a tank rupture most if not all of the H2 floats upward. Contrast this to a hazardous battery cracking in an accident and spewing toxic chemicals onto people's faces.

  15. @John Bailo, Exactly. People take the flammability of gasoline and natural gas for granted. Think of the internal combustion engine- detonating gasoline in the cylinders. We are essentially driving molotov cocktails on wheels :P

    How many action movie car chases end with a car or truck detonating in a massive fireball while the hero walks in slow motion towards the camera. Yes, hydrogen is flammable as well, but the Hindenburgh did not detonate like a bomb (imagine if it was filled with gasoline vapor instead).

  16. Please name those toxic chemicals in lithium batteries....I'm waiting....

  17. Honda, and Toyota will lead as they have with electic, gas, cars.

  18. So you mean not at all, since neither Toyota or Honda have an EV currently on the market.

  19. John,

    You wrote:

    "The drawbacks, as always, are the lack of a widespread hydrogen fueling infrastructure, the cost of the fuel cells themselves (expected to come down over time and with volume production), and the carbon footprint of hydrogen production itself."

    All of the same can be said of battery-electric and plug-in vehicles too (i.e., batteries are very expensive; the electric infrastructure is not in place; and (like hydrogen) electricity is only as clean as its source.

    And as for cost of the infrastructure, McKinsey Co. did a study for the EU and concluded that on a cost-per-vehicle-served basis, a hydrogen infrastructure would actually be LESS expensive.

    Generally, I thought your article was very good.

  20. @Rolf: Thanks for the kind words. I would observe, however, that at least in the U.S., most EV drivers are no more than 25 feet from their nearest "fueling" power outlet. And there are now several thousand public charging points, with hundreds more being added every month.

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