Critics of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have said they have no business case; at best their proponents are defying odds, and at worst they’re on a misbegotten errand – but that hasn’t stopped numerous automakers from getting deeply involved.
While several automakers have first-generation plug-in cars and are looking toward new and evolved products, no fewer than 24 mainstream nameplates have built at least one fuel cell development vehicle, if not an evolving series of developmental or production cars.
Basically, automakers are trying everything to see what pays off with no fewer than eight deep-pocketed players having said they are planning passenger FCVs between now and decade’s end. However, only three FCVs are presently being sold or pending sale in the U.S. whereas there are a dozen battery electric cars, and nine plug-in hybrids. This said, there is a sizable undercurrent of interest and money being spent to push fuel cell cars to viability. Also not hurting things is California is offering nine zero emission vehicle credits per car versus no more than four for the largest battery equipped Tesla Model S. And, governments and industry stakeholders are posturing in what may be a race between alternative technologies now with plug-ins leading by a nose.
Automakers, such as General Motors, like that certain “boxes” have been “checked” for criteria needed on the way to making FCVs mainstream suitable.
They are zero emission, have been tested for safety, offer quick refueling, durability competitive with internal combustion cars, and range also on par.
Fuel cell electric cars today generally employ a fuel cell stack that mixes hydrogen with air to give off electrons for electric propulsion. The hydrogen is typically gaseous, stored in high pressure tank(s), and system components are borrowed from hybrid/electric cars – including the batteries – thus FCVs are typically a form of hybrid with combustion engine deleted.
Fuel cell tech is also scalable and flexible; not solely aimed at automotive transportation. For example, Honda uses a stationary fuel cell system at its Torrance, Calif. headquarters for electric power, and BMW uses fuel cells in its forklifts. Other applications include the power source for watercraft, buses, limos, trucks, tractors, and for space exploration as well.
The allure is surely there, but costs remain prohibitive, infrastructure is almost nil, and other challenges exist besides. Following are automakers working to change that:
The Japanese innovator that was selling clean-running cars long before EPA regs got serious and while Detroit was pushing heavy iron has had its FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle in the U.S., Japan and in Europe.
It was first offered as a 2008 model, and since 2010 it’s been leased in Southern California for $600 per month including insurance, maintenance. Also included is fuel because regulators have not established a metered price – and still haven’t – for hydrogen.
Unfulfilled early promises of infrastructure by California authorities have led to stalled or sideways growth, and some months may go by where only a couple units are delivered. It’s next to no market, but Honda is collecting data. In a large sense it is a public science project for the next generation, but it is a bona fide production car.
Next up, Honda is working toward a five-passenger Jetsonesque follow-up to be ready by fiscal 2015 for 2016 sales.
Assuming success, in years ahead Honda’s Acura division might also have FCVs.
Hyundai has launched its $499 leased Tucson SUV in Southern California as well – as this is where all the refueling stations are not to mention ZEV mandates. Hyundai has also released the car in Europe and South Korea.
The vehicle was just launched last year and this, but has been a gleam in its maker’s eye since 2005’s LA auto show. As is the case with all these brands of FCVs, Hyundai has road tested it in all conditions, and developed efficiencies while reducing production costs.
U.S. sales are not precisely known, as Hyundai lumps the FCV with the gas-powered Tucson in monthly reporting.
The Mirai probably needs little introduction, as we’ve had lots of news on this from the maker of the Prius.
The four-passenger sedan will start in the U.S. at $57,500 and hope is federal subsidies of as much as $8,000 will be renewed after they expire next year to add to $5,000 from California.
Sales in the home market where Toyota itself receives significant governmental assistance, begin Monday. Europe is due to follow in September 2015, and U.S. not long after in 2015.
The plan is to slowly push ahead, follow infrastructure to market, spend the money and time and be patient. Eventually it would be not unlikely to expect Lexus branded FCVs, and meanwhile Toyota is well underway on two other FCVs though we know little about these.
Platinum-requiring fuel cell stacks have been expensive, and to date that fact plus lack of infrastructure are what is keeping back automakers from coming to market who otherwise could.
To share costs and intellectual property, automakers who’ve at other times worked independently have teamed up and issued forward-looking statements promising products.
Daimler, Ford, Nissan
In January 2013 a pact was agreed upon by three major automotive players to pool talent, resources and intellectual property to make the “world’s first affordable, mass-market” FCV by 2017.
Actually, each wants its own uniquely branded model but they say they’ll save costs by utilizing common system design.
Here’s where cynics start to mutter something about vaporware, or hype, or overpromising and under delivering.
True enough these automakers have not delivered much news, and there aren’t that many shopping days till 2017 remaining, but while we have yet to hear a lot of progress, these are multi-billion dollar corporations.
Whether they are late to market – as Daimler itself has been – may be a possibility. Predicting when future tech will get here is about like BEV fans talking about when lithium-air batteries will be ready.
But jaundiced views aside, just like next-gen batteries for plug-in cars, hydrogen powered Mercedes, Fords, Lincolns, Nissans and Infinitis may be less a matter of if, and only a question of when?
BMW and Toyota
Toyota is floating its own enterprise, and just like each of these collaborators in this article, BMW has also worked independently on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
BMW is getting more press these days for its i-series and its i3 has quickly ascended to third place in monthly U.S. sales among battery electric cars, but BMW just like government regulators, subscribe to the “all of the above” approach.
“TMC and the BMW Group share the same strategic vision of future sustainable mobility,” said Norbert Reithofer, chairman of the Board of Management of BMW AG.
For good measure, TMC and BMW also plan to develop beyond-lithium-ion battery tech. So, for all the people disgruntled at Toyota, it aims to have a lithium-air battery with energy density greatly exceeding that of current lithium-ion batteries.
This Toyota is doing besides other work on batteries. But as for FCVs, the collaborators are sharing technologies to jointly develop a fuel cell vehicle system, including fuel cell stack and system, hydrogen tank, motor and battery. Target date is 2020, so stay tuned!
General Motors and Honda
Here we have the world’s number one FCV patent holder (GM) sharing knowledge and development work with the number two patent holder (Honda). Together they have over 1,200 patents and aim not to let them all sit on a shelf collecting dust.
According to Dan Flores of GM communications, GM sees great potential in hydrogen, and has been on the ground floor with a running hydrogen fuel cell van back in 1966, not to mention progressive development work through the end of last millennium into this, up until today.
The company in 2007 also built 119 Equinox-based FCVs which have accrued 3 million miles. Some have been taken out of service, some have crashed off the road, some are still in development engineers hands.
Other GM test fleets and work on classified projects with the U.S. military are also underway. All its FCV work has been consolidated at its powertrain development facility in Pontiac, Mich., where it also works on battery powered and conventional drive trains.
In short, GM is not asleep at the hydrogen fuel cell wheel, and time frame here too is targeted around 2020 though GM has made no production vehicle announcements like Honda has.
Since 2002 Honda has been at FCV development, and as mentioned above it is now forging ahead with its second-generation follow-up to the FCX Clarity.
Honda may be able to accelerate its work because it has free access to all of GM’s intellectual property and the will to use it ASAP.
The collaborators mentioned above have built multiple fuel cell prototypes and a comprehensive listing of all they’ve done is beyond this survey article’s scope.
Briefly, companies which have also built at least one FCV prototype include Chrysler, Jeep Suzuki, Mitsubishi, Subaru, Mazda, Kia, Volkswagen, Audi, Peugeot, Renault, Alfa Romeo, Fiat, Tata, and Morgan.
True enough, today there is negligible refueling, high costs, and questionable well-to-wheel analyses to ponder, but the two-dozen hydrogen-FCV-developing nameplates are of course for-profit companies.
Not all are prepared to go to market even if there were a hydrogen station on every corner because costs are still upside down. But that will change, say at least eight major manufacturers which in turn have several subdivisions.
Collectively they’ve spent untold sums, some began work on fuel cells before battery electrified efforts, and a lot is now tied up in the quest for the hydrogen highway.