Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Not Viable, Says Volkswagen CEO

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Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, speaks at opening of VW engine plant, Silao, Mexico

Martin Winterkorn, CEO of Volkswagen AG, speaks at opening of VW engine plant, Silao, Mexico

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Leave it to the Germans to be blunt.

Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn has rendered his company's verdict on the future of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles: They're not viable.

Fuel-cell cars suffer from a lack of infrastructure, he said, will be far too costly for consumers, and use a fuel that cannot be produced in the required volumes.

As reported in Automotive News, Winterkorn's full statement (through a translator) was:

I do not see the infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles, and I do not see how hydrogen can be produced on large scale at reasonable cost. I do not currently see a situation where we can offer fuel cell vehicles at a reasonable cost that consumers would also be willing to pay.

The CEO made the comment one week ago today, during a press conference question-and-answer session at VW headquarters in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Since 2010, when it launched its first hybrid vehicle, Volkswagen has expanded its lineup of hybrids while simultaneously pushing its TDI diesel technology for fuel efficiency.

The group also plans to launch an all-electric e-Golf version of its seventh-generation Volkswagen Golf, and a plug-in hybrid version of the upcoming all-new Audi A3.

While Mercedes-Benz recently partnered with Ford and Nissan on fuel-cell development, buried in its January announcement was a two-year delay in its plans to offer a hydrogen-powered production car.

Winterkorn's pithy statement neatly lays out the three concerns analysts have had for years over hydrogen, sometimes called "the fuel of the future that always will be".

Mercedes-Benz Hydrogen Fuel-Cell vehicle

Mercedes-Benz Hydrogen Fuel-Cell vehicle

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Fueling infrastructure

As General Motors discovered several years ago during its "Project Driveway" launch of about 100 Chevrolet Equinox fuel-cell vehicles, hydrogen fueling stations don't necessarily fall under any sections of existing municipal zoning codes.

That means that to build one, even in an area or town that wants one (as did White Plains, New York), first the zoning code has to be changed, then the station must be approved, with a lot of public education needed too. (One word for you: "Hindenburg".)

The fully-loaded cost to build a single hydrogen fueling station in an accepting community approached $2 million, insiders say. Roughly 15,000 would be needed to cover the U.S. *if* they were ideally spaced.

Powertrain cost

The auto industry is very good at squeezing cost out of complex electromechanical devices produced in volume. But lately, auto companies seem considerably more pessimistic about the costs to consumers of production fuel-cell vehicles.

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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Toyota, for instance, plans to launch a hydrogen fuel-cell car in 2015, and says it hopes to bring the car to market at a cost of $50,000.

Honda says it does not expect its planned fuel-cell vehicles to break even before 2025.

Hydrogen production in volume

Even assuming a distribution infrastructure could be funded, perhaps the most challenging issue for hydrogen as a vehicle fuel is producing it in bulk.

While hydrogen gas is now a byproduct of many industrial processes, it's also used as an input to other processes--so sufficient volumes to fuel even hundreds of thousands of vehicles would require dedicated production.

And because hydrogen is a very good energy carrier, it requires a great deal of energy to produce by separating the hydrogen molecule from the more complex molecules into which it binds--in natural gas, urea, water, or any other compound containing hydrogen atoms.

Question of carbon footprint

As plug-in electric-car advocates frequently point out, using electricity to create hydrogen from any feedstock then gives you an energy carrier that has to be stored, transported, pumped at high pressure into a vehicle, and run through a fuel cell operating at roughly 50 percent efficiency to produce electricity that actually powers the car.

That leads to a carbon footprint for driving a mile on hydrogen fuel that's far worse than simply using the same electricity to charge a battery pack and use that battery to run an electric motor--with roughly 80 percent efficiency between plug and wheels.

So, what do you think? Is VW's Winterkorn right, or will hydrogen have a role as a future vehicle fuel?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

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