|January 09, 2014|
Showdown over the fuel of the future set for 2014
|Toyota, Hyundai and Honda have unveiled plans to debut hydrogen fuel cell cars for 2015 at a time when plug-in cars are gaining a degree of acceptance.|
While the Japanese automakers may be better known in the U.S. for the hybrid technology that pairs a gas engine with an electric motor, all three think hydrogen fuel cells will be the fuel of the future.
Fuel cells combine the best of electric and gasoline cars without the downsides, the automakers say. They drive like electric cars---quietly, with tons of off-the-line power---but can be refueled just like gasoline-powered cars.
Fuel-cell cars use a stack of cells that combine hydrogen with oxygen in the air to generate electricity, which powers the motor that propels the car. The only emission is water vapor and, with a 300-mile range can run 3 or 4 times longer than the most capable electrics, aside from Tesla's all-electric Model S, which has a range of 265 miles. The Nissan Leaf has a 75-mile range.
Hyundai plans to produce 1,000 of the FCEV Tuscon crossover by 2015. GM launched a fleet of hydrogen-powered Chevy Equinox in 2007. The 119 vehicles have since amassed over 3 million miles. Toyota's FCV, which Jerry Hirsch said looks like a futuristic Prius, will debut in 2015.
The Honda FCEV, or fuel cell electric vehicle, will seat 5 and have a range greater than 300 miles. Honda developed a fuel cell concept in 2006 that became available on a lease-limited basis in 2008 as the Honda FCX Clarity, a four-seat sedan. About 200 are for lease for $600 a month in southern California, where there are hydrogen refueling stations.
Infrastructure, as much as cost, remain a barrier. The same was and still is true in many places for the nascent but growing electric vehicle industry, which started in late 2010 with the near simultaneous release of the all-electric Nissan Leaf and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt.
Automakers such as Honda, Toyota and Hyundai believe fuel-cell vehicles are the most expedient path to meeting stringent zero-emission vehicle mandates set by California and 9 other states. Led by California and its zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) mandate of having 15 percent of new cars sold be emission free by 2025, the ten-state coalition aims to have 3.3 million ZEVs on the road by 2025.
Thus far, the coalition and similar public-private partnerships have supported electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The West Coast Green Highway, for instance, is an electric-charging equipped roadway from Baja, California to British Columbia, Canada.
Will the businesses, individuals, and municipalities that have invested millions (if not more) to develop that network have the same energy and resources to build a similar and competing infrastructure?
California has approved more than $200 million in funding to build about 20 new stations by 2015, a total of 40 by 2016, and as many as 100 by 2024, according to Hirsch.
Some hydrogen stations in southern California are located beside gas pumps, and take slightly longer than a gas pump fill. The best fast-charging equipment for electric cars takes 20-40 minutes and requires a distinct and separate network than hydrogen stations, which can be installed at existing gas station infrastructure, albeit with major modifications.
Who's plugged in? Out?
The German automakers think plug-ins have the advantage. BMW as well as Volkswagen and its Audi brand, are introducing electric vehicles globally, especially in China, the world's largest auto market. One big advantage of plug-in cars is you can charge them at home. Volkswagen of America Chief Executive Jonathan Browning said you can find a socket much easier than a hydrogen fueling station, according to Hirsch.
Mercedes-Benz, however, has invested in hydrogen fuel cells. The B-Class F-Cell small car has a 190-mile range, not enough to get it between L.A. and San Francisco, the two cities it's offered in.
Just like electric vehicles can put energy back onto the grid during peak times, fuel-cell vehicles like Toyota's FCV can supply enough energy to power a house for a week. That seems like a far-off benefit.
Though Nissan is at the vanguard of electric vehicles, it is planning a fuel-cell vehicle for Japan and North America in 2017.
Despite GM's trials with fuel-cell technology, they seem more committed to the electrification of vehicles, with the Chevy Volt, Cadillac ELR and the Chevy Spark. There's even speculation that GM may bid on Tesla. GM may be hesitant to be the first one there with fuel cells. In 1996, it debuted the EV1 electric car, and had to shut down the lease-only program because of high costs and lack of support, which appears widespread today.
With three plug-in cars available nationwide, Ford appears committed to the electrification of vehicles as well.
Partnerships may help reduce the costs, as it has for electric vehicle infrastructure.
Honda and General Motors Co in July said they would jointly develop hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle systems over the next seven years in an effort to cut the cost of the new technology, according to Nichola Groom for Reuters.
Automakers won't be the only ones sensitive to cost. Toyota estimates the FCV to cost anywhere between $50,000 to $100,000. With the cost of electrics dropping along with the cost of lithium-ion batteries, fuel-cells have a long road ahead to convince car buyers that the extended range is worth the distended price tag.