Fuel Cell Vehicle Advocates Have A Public Fear Factor to Address

As fuel cell vehicles are slowly being introduced, automakers and hydrogen suppliers still have to overcome public safety perceptions over these new kinds of vehicles.

A Bloomberg report makes the case that age-old perceptions over the 1937 Hindenburg airship disaster and H-bomb tests from the 1950s represent a major hurdle for Toyota, Shell, and other companies competing in fuel cell vehicles and the hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

The publication cites a London-based taxi driver transporting customers in a Toyota Mirai sedan who enjoys telling riders about the car emitting nothing but vapor. Questions come up for taxi driver Theo Ellis about the costs of the vehicle and environmental factors, but most passengers bring up the subject of safety.

“That will put people off,” said Ellis, who drives for London-based Green Tomato Cars Ltd. “A lot of people mention that. As soon as you mention hydrogen it’s the first thing on their mind.”

While the devastating Hindenburg fire took place 80 years ago, the images seem to have been embedded in the minds of many people. The Hindenburg disaster in New Jersey killed 36 people, and made the front cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1969 debut album. Images of mushroom clouds from hydrogen bomb tests became a popular icon in science fiction movies.

Toyota and Shell are strong advocates of hydrogen, which they see as safer and less polluting than the fossil fuels that cause climate change. Shell and Toyota are partnering to add seven new hydrogen fueling stations in California.

The two companies are part of a global hydrogen council that formed last month and included Total SA, Liquide SA, and Linde AG. The oil company also belongs to a German government-backed consortium with the goal of having 400 hydrogen stations opened by 2023.

Toyota has been a champion of fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen stations becoming common in Japan, joining forces with other automakers and governments. The city of Tokyo plans to spend 45.2 billion yen ($400 million) on fuel cell vehicle subsidies and hydrogen stations by the time of the 2020 Olympics.

Toyota, Honda, Hyundai, BMW, and Daimler have announced plans to roll out more fuel cell vehicles in the future.

Fuel cells and hydrogen are becoming widely adopted and integrated in several applications including fork lifts, submarines, commercial trucks, power generators, and now with light-duty passenger vehicles. NASA gave fuel cells more credibility years ago by using the technology in the U.S. space program.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicle advocates emphasize that hydrogen can be extracted from a multitude of sources including water, natural gas, and waste materials. Fuel cells are able to set up a chemical reaction between the fuel and oxygen in the air, which creates an electric charge and only emits water vapor. Supporters of the technology emphasize that fuel cell vehicles are actually electric vehicles, with their energy coming from fuel cell stacks instead of battery packs.

Citing the Hindenburg disaster isn’t fair or accurate, says a Toyota executive.

“The fire and explosion at Hindenburg was nothing to do with hydrogen, and that is the mindset you’ve got to change with people,” said Jon Hunt, who is in charge of commercialization of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles for Toyota GB Plc. In the airship disaster, “there were a number of things, including materials used and operational practice that would be totally mitigated by normal good practice now.”

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Lithium-ion batteries have their own safety perceptions to deal with, but mobile phones haven’t been hurt by it, Hunt said. Fires coming from Samsung’s Note 7 smart phones and Boeing airplane fires starting in li-ion battery units haven’t seemed to hurt mobile phone sales or usage.

Automakers hope that the increasing presence of fuel cell and hydrogen technology clears up public perceptions and support. An example of it comes from Panasonic selling thousands of fuel cells to power individual homes in Japan.

U.S.-based companies FuelCell Energy Inc., Plug Power Inc., and Ballard Power Systems Inc., are putting the technology into fork lifts and commercial power generators.

Automakers are forging alliances to bring the technology forward, such as General Motors and Volkswagen teaming up with Toyota to design fuel cell vehicles.


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