With almost 250,000 plug-in electric cars on U.S. roads--and double that number globally--electric vehicles are starting to establish a small foothold in the market.

More than 10,000 a month were sold this past May, June, and July.

But with hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles now offered by Hyundai, and coming next year from Toyota and Honda, how many fuel-cell cars are we likely to see delivered?

2016 Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan

2016 Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan

The answer is likely to be fewer than you might think: perhaps less than 1,000 a year from each of the three makers.

There are two reasons: First, the hydrogen fueling infrastructure is largely not in place, meaning that fuel-cell cars can only be sold in very specific areas of California.

DON'T MISS: Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars To Come From Toyota, Hyundai, Honda

Second, unlike the relatively high-volume Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Tesla Model S, and Toyota Prius Plug-In, hydrogen fuel-cell cars will be sold in only compliance-car numbers for several years to come.

That's because the California Air Resources Board, in the rules for its Zero-Emission Vehicle credits program, gives hydrogen fuel-cell cars with ranges of 300 miles or more fully nine credits.

Battery-electric compliance cars with ranges of 100 miles or less--the Chevy Spark EV, Fiat 500e, and Toyota RAV4 EV, for example--get only three credits.

So each hydrogen fuel-cell car replaces three electric compliance cars, meaning Toyota could sell roughly 800 during model years 2015 through 2017, and get the same number of credits as the 2,600 RAV4 EVs it will deliver.

Honda FCEV Concept, 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show

Honda FCEV Concept, 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show

Similarly, Honda could replace its 1,100 Fit EVs over three years with 125 fuel-cell cars a year and come out in the same place.

The math is much more complicated than that, since carmakers all accumulate ZEV-credit balances from their own efforts, and also buy and sell those credits among each other--and from Tesla Motors, which has no emitting cars to offset.

ALSO SEE: First 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Delivered In California

Everything changes in 2018, when "intermediate" manufacturers (BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Subaru, and Volkswagen Group) will be required to start selling ZEVs as well--and the percentages of total sales start to rise.

From 2012 through 2018, only the six largest carmakers must sell ZEVs, and they must accumulate enough credits to represent 0.79 percent of their sales in California.

Then the percentages start to rise, and fast:

  • 2018 ------------ 2.0 percent
  • 2019 ------------ 4.0 percent
  • 2020 ------------ 6.0 percent
  • 2021 ------------ 8.0 percent
  • 2022 ----------- 10.0 percent
  • 2023 ----------- 12.0 percent
  • 2024 ----------- 14.0 percent
  • 2025 ----------- 16.0 percent

How carmakers will deliver one-sixth of their California sales with zero emissions just 10 model years hence is an open question, as is the state of the hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the state by then.

Toyota sees the market bifurcating between short-range battery-electrics + long-range fuel-cell cars

Toyota sees the market bifurcating between short-range battery-electrics + long-range fuel-cell cars

But at least through 2017, you can expect fairly small numbers of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to be delivered by each of the three main players--only a few hundred each, most likely.

MORE: California Gets Serious About Funding Hydrogen Fueling Stations

And by 2018, when the new and tougher percentages come into effect, it seems likely that buyers will be able to choose from a new and longer-range set of battery-electric vehicles from Nissan, Tesla, and perhaps BMW and General Motors as well.

Just don't expect to see a whole lot of hydrogen-fueled vehicles on California roads any time soon.


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