This week Ford announced that it set the land speed record for a production-based fuel cell powered car. The Ford Fusion Hydrogen 999, the world’s only hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered racecar, hit 207 mph on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. Does this news make you want to clear a space in your garage for a fuel cell car? Not so fast.
Fuel cell vehicles face a number of challenges. It’s hard to store enough hydrogen on board and to use it efficiently, so fuel cell vehicles can’t drive very far between fill-ups. Many of today’s fuel cell vehicles have just 100-150 miles of on-road range. Durability is also an issue. Most of us are accustomed to cars that last for at least 100,000 miles, but today’s fuel cell vehicles have a much shorter lifespan. Before fuel cells are ready for widespread use, the US Department of Energy estimates that they will have to last seven times longer than they do today. Also, like any new technology, fuel cells are expensive. Today’s fuel cell prototype can cost well over a million dollars, so the fuel cell car’s price has a long way to fall before it is affordable for most buyers. Finally, there aren’t many places to buy hydrogen yet. While the US has nearly 200,000 gas stations, just 31 hydrogen stations exist across the country, and many of them are not open to the public.
Does making 207 mph fuel cell vehicle help to solve any of these issues? In some ways, yes. One of Ford’s stated goals in taking the fuel-cell racecar to Bonneville was to improve the efficiency of the fuel cell powertrain and to reduce its cost. But what about increasing on-board hydrogen storage, fuel cell durability, and hydrogen availability? At this point, it seems more practical to focus on increasing the fuel cell vehicle’s range to 200+ miles rather than pushing its top speed to 200+ miles per hour.
Racing programs are one way that auto companies develop and test new technologies. Race victories and land speed records may motivate engineers in a way that corporate mandates and or financial incentives cannot. But it’s not yet clear whether Ford’s work on the Fusion Hydrogen 999 has moved it any further ahead in the race to develop a fuel cell car that can replace the conventional automobile. What Ford’s land speed record has done is generate a fair amount of media attention, which may be the last thing that over-hyped fuel cell technology needs right now.