In Era of EV Buzz, Fuel Cell Cars Continue to Roll

Carmakers promise 2015 as the magic year for mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell cars.

There was a time not long ago when hybrids, electric cars, and fuel cell cars were all viewed as futuristic science projects. Times have changed. Hybrids started to hit the road a decade ago and are now moving into the mainstream. Just this month, major car companies started handing over keys to the Nissan LEAF mass-produced electric car, and the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid. And there are even signs of progress toward the introduction of viable fuel cell cars later in the decade.

Last week, Mercedes-Benz leased its first B-Class hydrogen-powered fuel-cell electric vehicle to a U.S. customer. Vance Van Petten, the executive director of the Producers Guild of America, is among a small group of people leasing the B-Class F-Cell for a fairly hefty $845 per month, in a two-year lease. “I’m thrilled to be driving a vehicle that I believe represents the future of environmentally thoughtful transportation,” said Van Petten, a long-time environmental advocate.

The lack of hydrogen fueling stations obviously is still one of several major obstacles to adoption of fuel cell cars. Mercedes-Benz is carefully vetting potential customers—presumably using proximity to a rare hydrogen station as the critical factor. It only takes about three minutes to refuel the B-Class F-Cell, which is powered by an electric motor with 134 horsepower (the same performance rating as a Toyota Prius).

Mercedes and other fuel cell carmakers are quick to say that hydrogen cars are in fact a kind of electric vehicle, but with longer range and quick refueling. “The B-Class F-Cell will be the first electric vehicle that never needs to be plugged in, and doesn’t come with built-in range anxiety,” said Sascha Simon, head of advanced product planning at Mercedes-Benz U.S., in an interview with HybridCars.com in October. “It’s a really great vehicle. It’s a full electric vehicle without the disadvantages of batteries.” This argument is tough to make now that the Chevy Volt—a plug-in hybrid with similar total range and the ability to use readily available gasoline—is on the road.

Mercedes is not the only company playing up a portfolio approach, with hydrogen fuel cells as part of its roadmap. Hyundai announced today that it completed development of the Tucson ix Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, with production slated for 2015. The Hyundai hydrogen SUV has a full-tank range of about 400 miles—a 76 percent improvement over the previous generation Tucson FCEV.

Tucson ix Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle />

Tucson ix Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle

Toyota, Honda and General Motors are also in the fuel cell car business. Since the beginning of 2010, Toyota has been evaluating 100 fuel cell Highlander SUVs in a three-year demonstration program. Like Hyundai, Toyota says the fuel cell hybrids will go on sale in 2015, with an expected price tag of $50,000. Honda is also targeting 2015 for the FCX Clarity—about two-dozen FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell cars are currently being leased in the Los Angeles area. General Motors has about 100 hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinoxes in its Project Driveway evaluation program.

The 2015 date set by many of these companies seems like an eternity away for selling the very first mass-produced fuel cell cars—especially when considering that there could be as many as 1 million plug-in electric cars on the road by then, and hybrids will be selling by the millions every year. But don’t expect these fuel cell car programs to stop. Carmakers are hedging their bets on which technology ultimately will be the long-term winner for the 21st century.


  • MrEnergyCzar

    The lack of hydrogen fueling stations is irrelevant. It takes more energy to make the hydrogen than you get out of the fuel thus an energy sink. Hydrogen makes ethanol look good which it’s not. You are better off using the natural gas, renewable electricity or dirty grid electricity that you would use to make the hydrogen and put that energy directly into an onboard battery.

    MrEnergyCzar

  • 55mpg

    you are right. But this is true for a battery also. If I put in 1v kwhr of energy into a battery, I can only take may be 0.9 kwhr of energy from a battery.

    The advantage of hydrogen is similar to that of a battery. Hydrogen can be manufactured locally using solar power.

  • mike Halpin

    The combustion engine has had its day and very soon all our vehicles will be powered by clean electricity The debate is how will we store the electrons to power the motors? Battery or hydrogen fuel cells.
    The fork-lift industry has realised that fuel cells are more cost efficient and have started replacing battery driven trucks with HFC’s will the car industry do the same?
    I think our vehicles of the future will be powered by a combination of fuel cells, super capacitors and batteries.

    Mike H. founder HYDROGENHEADS

  • janni

    When you produce Hydrogen from water using electricity and compress and transport that Hydrogen to car and use that in a fuel cell you loose about 80% of the energy… It’s much better to use a battery. Producing Hydrogen from Natural Gas is also possible, but you loose energi here as well. It’s better to use the natural gas directly.

    Hydrogen does not occur in free form in nature. It’s not an energi source, it’s an energi carrier. And a very inefficient one. It’s not the future…

  • andresbodoira

    H2 economy is comming. Electricity will be produced locally by the people, but H2 production with that energy will be centralized. In Europe they are already testing a electricity “Internet”. Everyone will hace their small wind turbine, or solar panel (depending on the location). We are going to an uncentralized energy production. Hybrid cars and electric cars are only a transitory technology. Batteries are the main reason why they wont be used in the long run. Rare earth supply is already an issue.

  • JamesDavis

    About 5 years ago Iceland developed a hydrogen fuel cell power plant about the size of an American freezer that can be placed anywhere quickly. Inside the hydrogen power plant are cells like in the acid lead batteries. With the acid lead battery, you pour acid in and when it covers the cells, you get a dc current. With the hydrogen battery plant, you put water in one side, the water passes through the cells and electricity comes out the other side. GM has a hydrogen fuel cell battery on wheels – it use to be called “The Skateboard Car” and that battery works on the same principle as Iceland’s hydrogen fuel cell plant. Go on Scientific American magazine, type in hydrogen fuel cell batteries and you can view the hydrogen fuel cell battery and how it works. If GM hasn’t deleted their data base on The Skateboard Car or hydrogen fuel cell battery on wheels, you can even see how that hydrogen fuel cell car would look and work. The hydrogen fuel cell battery has been 60 years in the making and Iceland and Norway has it perfected and it is working great in Germany and Holland. The only reason the hydrogen fuel cell battery is not in America is because the three big automakers in America has too much invested in their century old petro vehicles to want to switch over to hydrogen and the oil industry in America would become dated and go out of business…America didn’t want that to happen until there is no more oil left to extract from the land.

  • Alexei

    A couple of years ago the same thing was said about battery cars. There are other ways to produce hydrogen, for example using heat from high temperature nuclear reactors, which are under development and is a lot more efficient than using electricity, as only 30% of heat is transformed into electricity and the rest is wasted during cooling, if that heat together with catalysts is used directly to split the water than it is a lot more eficient than producing electricity and charging batteries. Lets not close our minds and say that only one technology which became mature is the only solution and other less mature technologies are a dead end because today they are not economically viable.

  • FamilyGuy

    We’re a two car family. A traditional ICE car which gets about 350 miles to a tank. A hybrid which gets about 700 miles to a tank. Both fill up in about 5 minutes. The bar has been set. As much as I like the electric car, I have a hard time with a 100 mile range and overnight to recharge. The bar has not been reached.

    I like what I read about hydrogen, “…that hydrogen cars are in fact a kind of electric vehicle, but with longer range and quick refueling.” If hydrogen can be made from electricity and water and electricity can be made from renewable energy sources like wind farms and waterfalls, then, why can’t hydrogen be made from renewable sources?

    What came first? Car or gas stations? Lack of gas stations didn’t stop cars from becoming popular. I think when fuel cell cars are ready, hydrogen stations will be ready. At least I hope so.

  • DC

    The Fool-cell greenwash machine is still alive I see. How can a ‘long-time enviromental advocate’ get behind the FCV?. He is either a shill or just very naive. There is nothing remotely clean about FCV’s. They are economically dubious, too complex, and in no way shape or form is the production distribution or storage of H2 an improvement over the current toxic FF system. Here is what it comes down. Our industrial system is allready beginning to suffer from the effects of declineing net energy. The fact that americans believe that watering down there fuel with 10-15% corn-ethanol that takes more energy to produce than the resulting ‘fuel’ is telling. In any event in a world were the net energy availble to society, to make things like homes, mass-transit systems, toxic plastic garbage from wall-mart etc continues to shrink, there simply wont be a lot of surplus energy lying around to waste on a Fool-cell infastructure. The only net effect will be that complanies like GM can run adds claiming how fool-cell vehicles are just around the corner while in reality, the air water and land will be totally ruined by the waste products from a billion rusting ICE vehicles.

    As for the persistent fantasy that we will all be makeing our ‘own’ hydrogen from windmills Solar-panels, please give it a rest allready. Energy generation in this civilization is centralized and tightly controlled by either private or quasi-government entities. Even when goverments do control power generation , they show have shown little inclination to premit anything but token distrubted power schemes. And private american style firms, forget it, they simply wont allow any competition. Not one of these home-H2 schemes are remotely freasible, even if goverments would allow it(which they wont), they are energy material and economic sinks. Fool-cell vehicles are nothing but a costly, high-tech dog and pony show, a distraction from the very real problems created by not only ICE vehicles, but vehicles period. Fool-cell cars are DOA not matter how much money goverments give to fraudulent auto-makers like GM.

  • MrEnergyCzar

    There are way more energy losses with making Hydrogen than compared with taking the original energy source and putting it directly in a battery….

  • Paul Scott

    I’d be willing to bet that the gentleman who is leasing the Mercedes never, ever drives it more than 100 miles in a day. A Nissan LEAF would suffice for his driving and be much easier to charge than fueling an FCV.

    And talk about range anxiety, try taking an FCV anywhere and you’ll immediately experience severe anxiety over where those mysterious H2 stations are.

    FCVs are a dead issue for personal vehicles. Even the oil companies think so. Consider that they are the ones who will sell you the H2, but do you see them setting up H2 stations? No. They could install hundreds of them all over CA, but they don’t because they know that battery electrics are going to win the race for zero emission vehicles.

  • auto dealers

    The article is very interesting, but some issues still remained less affected. I hope that a future article and will reveal things behind the scenes, things that show us the true face of this.

  • MICHELLE BIELA

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I just viewed an online article about GM having a hub in Hawaii for hydrogen run vehicles. I am praying our society diverts from oil/gasoline. It is a downward spiral economically.

  • daniel rendler

    I think it is safe to assume that the guys at NASA are pretty smart. They flew our rockets to the moon which were powered by hydrogen .. not batteries. Case closed.

  • James Anderton

    Electricity is truly the highest quality form of energy from a conversion/utility standpoint and stored hydrogen can’t compete with stored electric current…IF the hydrogen is produced by electrolysis or fossil fuel feedstocks. But if it can be made by a catalyst using waste heat from power plants or industrial processes, it could be very attractive, at least if/until ultracapacitor technology makes range and recharge time a non-issue.
    Whether it happens or not may be determined by the oil industry, but readers who think the automakers conspire obviously haven’t worked in the industry. The auto industry is highly competetive, but a new car can cost $500 million or more to develop. Only the bravest can spend that kind of money on a gamble, and Wall Street wants to see profit every quarter. Japanese shareholders will support long term research, which is why we have the Prius etc. The oil companies might conspire, but not the automakers.

  • fuel cells

    very informative Blog on alternative energy