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.
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.