Is Toyota's hydrogen fuel-cell fervor foolish, or foresighted? (with charts)


2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

2016 Toyota Mirai - Quick Drive - Portland, July 2015 [photo: Doug Berger]

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Toyota's staunch, unswerving support for hydrogen fuel cells has astonished and aggravated many in the electric vehicle community.

For some of them, the technology is at best an inferior solution—and at worst is fossil fuel-friendly vaporware, a Judas in Jesus's clothing, if you will.

With Daimler's recent announcement that it would de-emphasize fuel cells in favor of batteries, your author checked in with contacts at Toyota to ask if they too would be moderating their fuel-cell efforts.

DON'T MISS: 10 Questions On Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars To Ask Toyota, Honda & Hyundai (Oct 2014)

The company is keeping the faith.

What's more, it's doing so based on a four-letter word: cost. That's right: Toyota's long game is to use fuel cells to beat batteries on cost.

A review of relevant literature hints at how the company might achieve this.

Toyota FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototype during cold-weather endurance testing in N America

Toyota FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle prototype during cold-weather endurance testing in N America

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Author disclosures

For all the shared characteristics of fuel cells and the batteries, and their shared differences with internal combustion, proponents of each technology can be passionately dismissive of each other, bringing to mind Sigmund Freud's observation about the narcissism of small differences.

Mutual suspicion abounds.

In the interest of disclosure, this author worked in the fuel cell sector for about 15 years. I also bought a plug-in hybrid five years ago, despite not being able to charge at home then, and I strongly support electric vehicles.

They are available at commercial scale today, and their collective impact will dwarf that of fuel-cell vehicles for the foreseeable future.

My equally strong support for continued development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles draws from General Motors CEO Alfred Sloan's philosophy of building "a car for every purse and purpose".

1915 Ford Model T from the Rogers' Classic Car Museum collection

1915 Ford Model T from the Rogers' Classic Car Museum collection

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Under Sloan's leadership, GM's basket of brands overtook Ford in sales, as the latter's singular focus on the Model T led to its near-ruin.

The lesson, I believe, is that having more zero-emission transportation options can only speed our transition to an emission-free future.

Short of every city in every county in every country passing right-to-charge legislation, it's hard to imagine batteries meeting the needs of all the world's drivers in the coming decades. It's harder still to imagine fuel cells doing so.

It's much easier to foresee that these technologies in tandem could erode the market share of combustion vehicles more quickly and deeply than either one could on its own.

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, 2016 Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

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2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, Santa Barbara, CA, March 2017

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, Santa Barbara, CA, March 2017

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2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, Santa Barbara, CA, March 2017

2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, Santa Barbara, CA, March 2017

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Full circle

Daimler's March retreat from fuel cells came almost exactly 20 years after it kicked off a craze by announcing it would take a stake in Ballard Power Systems, a developer of proton-exchange-membrane fuel cells (PEMFCs).

At the time, I was interning at Ballard—and it's largely been forgotten that Daimler was bidding against General Motors, which was also collaborating with Ballard.

While GM was then building the EV1 two-seat electric car, it's important to remember that lithium-ion battery cells had been commercialized only half a decade before. They still cost about $1,000 per kilowatt-hour at the cell level.

The EV1, remember, had launched with lead-acid batteries.


 
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