For decades, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have been trumpeted as the best strategy for reducing—if not entirely eliminating—emissions from our cars and trucks. Billions of dollars later, top executives from General Motors and Toyota appear ready to give up on the viability of hydrogen-powered cars—and shift their future plans to hybrid and electric cars running on lithium ion batteries.

Bob Lutz, GM’s product guru, told reporters at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show, “If we get lithium ion to 300 miles [in range], then you need to ask yourself, Why do you need fuel cells?” Lutz expressed concerns that fuel cell vehicles are still far too expensive to be considered for the mass market. “We are nowhere [near] where we need to be on the costs curve,” he said.

Toyota President Katsuaki Watanabe, also speaking to the press in Geneva, said, “It will be difficult to see the spread of fuel cells in 10 years’ time.” Watanabe also cited the high cost of fuel cells and the lack of a hydrogen-fueling infrastructure.

Is Hydrogen an Either-Or Debate?

Is this shift a clear-headed assessment of hydrogen technology and its economics? Or merely corporate maneuvering? Both GM and Toyota are taking lead roles in producing hybrids and other vehicles with significant energy storage in batteries. Toyota’s position has produced sales of more than one million hybrids, while GM’s stance on hybrids and plug-in hybrids remains theoretical so far.

Notwithstanding comments from Lutz and Watanabe, GM and Toyota continue to pursue hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, to varying degrees.

Meanwhile, other auto companies less invested in gas-electric hybrids continue to push hydrogen. Daimler Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche told reporters in Geneva that he is convinced that his company can produce competitive fuel cell vehicles by 2014-15, with production levels quickly rising to 100,000 units per year. Honda recently became the first car company to bring a production fuel cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity, to market—leasing the hydrogen-hybrid to approximately 100 customers in Southern California.

In an article about the shifting fortunes of hydrogen, the Times (UK) said, “Fuel cell cars…have shifted from fiction to eagerly expected fact—and apparently back to fiction again as we have waited for science and engineering to deliver.”

With billions of dollars of hydrogen R&D money left on the table—and lithium battery-powered hybrid and electric-drive vehicles not yet established as a mainstay—it’s unlikely that the vision of hydrogen fuel vehicles will be put to rest. The pendulum could swing once more back in hydrogen’s favor. Or the auto industry may yet break from its past in which a single drivetrain technology reigns supreme, to an era in which multiple and diverse technologies mutually co-exist—some ready for the road and others remaining in research labs for decades.