BBC Autos


Carmakers get serious – again – about hydrogen

  • Banking on a wonder fuel

    When Tesla’s Elon Musk and Renault-Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn criticise you, especially in the same week, chances are you’re on to something.

    Both executives denounced the flood of hydrogen fuel cell news from the recently concluded 2013 Tokyo and Los Angeles motor show media previews. Parsing the tea leaves, their actions reveal the potential vulnerability of betting heavily on battery electric technology – which both companies have done – when a rival electric drive system appears ascendant.

    Honda, Hyundai and Toyota grabbed the Tokyo and Los Angeles spotlight with announcements of fuel-cell passenger cars coming in the next two years. Meanwhile, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz have put in decades of work to put fuel-cell vehicles on the road.

    Today’s fuel cells are competitive in driving range, size and power to modest internal-combustion powertrains, and the cost hurdle is being lowered, too, without the attendant range and recharging limitations of battery EVs.

    While fuelling infrastructure is all but absent for fuel cell vehicles, these automakers are betting that the technology is sound, and given consumers’ wan embrace of battery-electric cars, the climate seems ripe for a green-tech disruptor. (Photo: American Honda Motor)

  • History

    The US space programme was attracted to fuel cells for their ability to produce great energy from relatively low mass. Ultimately, it was a fuel cell that powered the lunar module during the Apollo moon missions (pictured) – the realisation of a promise more than 100 years in the making, dating to the first energy-producing fuel cell of 1838.

    Carmakers have long been enamored of fuel cells, but for decades the cost was as astronomical as the technology’s pedigree. Breakthroughs have now reduced the girth and expense of producing cells, while power output, lifespan and tolerance for freezing conditions have improved. (Bear in mind that the byproduct of the cell is pure water, which can freeze and damage the cell.) (Photo: SSPL/NASA/Getty)

  • Infrastructure

    This Shell station in Torrance, California, is one of 23 in the region providing compressed hydrogen. A natural gas pipeline delivers fuel to the station, where a reformer extracts hydrogen that can be dispensed at the pump.

    “The refuelling process is very similar to a gasoline vehicle,” says Jim Salomon, driver of a lease-only Honda FCX Clarity (pictured). “You have a zero-emission electric vehicle but you don’t have to plug it in for hours. You just go to a gas station like you normally do, you pull up to a pump, you fill up like you normally do, and within a few minutes you are off and running like a regular car.”

    A 2012 US Department of Energy forecast pegged hydrogen fuel costs at the equivalent of $3.68/gallon of gasoline, but because hydrogen is mostly made from natural gas – a fuel whose price is decreasing – that figure stands to fall. (Photo: American Honda Motor)

  • General Motors

    Since 2009, the brawniest of Detroit’s Big Three has operated its “Project Driveway” fleet of 119 fuel cell demonstration Chevrolet Equinox crossovers over 3m miles. The company has been among the industry’s loudest evangelisers for developing hydrogen infrastructure worldwide. The company leads the world in fuel cell patents, followed by Honda, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index.

    In July 2013, General Motors (GM) signed a partnership agreement with Honda to co-develop fuel cell and hydrogen storage technology, with a product target of 2020. GM is also building the Fuel Cell Development Laboratory in Pontiac, Michigan, where it is researching, among other things, fuel cell technology for the US Army’s tank engineering centre. (Photo: General Motors)

  • Mercedes-Benz

    When Mercedes-Benz built its first fuel cell prototype, NECAR 1 (for New Electric Car), in 1994, the fuel cell filled a large van and weighed 1,700lbs. By 1997’s NECAR 3, engineers had squeezed a cell into one of the company’s A-Class subcompacts.

    Mercedes progressed to the F-Cell series of prototypes in 2009 – essentially B-Class compacts fitted with a 136-horsepower electric drivetrains boasting a range of nearly 240 miles and a 3-minute refuelling time.

    For the 2011 Frankfurt motor show, Mercedes introduced the scene-stealing F 125 concept car, its vision of what a fuel cell-powered S-Class might appear in 2025. According to Mercedes, the zoomy F 125 races to 100kph (62mph) in 4.9 seconds while achieving fuel economy of 2.7 litres per 100km (roughly equivalent to 87mpg). (Photo: Daimler)

  • Hyundai

    In keeping with a company that introduced 10-year warranties and the ability to return a new car if a buyer gets sacked, Hyundai’s entry into the fuel cell market is a brash one. In Los Angeles, the Korean automaker announced that a fuel cell-powered version of its popular Tuscon crossover SUV will be available to southern California lease customers in spring 2014, just months away.

    Most impressively, the vehicle will be offered for a three-year $499/month lease that includes the cost of the hydrogen fuel, after a $2,999 down payment. Hyundai promises a 300-mile driving range and cold-weather utility close to that of a gasoline car. (Photo: Hyundai Motor America)

  • Honda

    Honda leased out its first FCX Clarity fuel cell car to a retail customer in 2005. That was a stubby little conveyance replaced in 2007 by the swoopy, current version, a car that rendered Top Gear’s James May nearly speechless. Honda has leased two dozen of the cars for a price of $600/month.

    But by fast-changing fuel cell standards, that car employs ancient technology. Honda’s new FCEV Concept that debuted at the Los Angeles auto show (pictured) will arrive as a production model in 2015 using a new fuel cell design that is smaller and more powerful than the current Clarity’s unit.

    The company promises 300 miles of driving range and a full refill of its tank in just three minutes. A key advance over the second-generation Clarity is the ability to fit the shrunken fuel cell into the underhood engine bay, rather than under the floor of the passenger compartment, making room for five passengers instead of the current model’s four. (Photo: Newspress)

  • Toyota

    With no battery electric vehicles on the mass market (its RAV4 EV is a California-only car intended to comply with the state’s zero-emissions fleet requirements), Toyota has favoured hybrids for the short term and hydrogen fuel cells for the long term. That long term reaches fruition in 2015, when Toyota is scheduled to unveil a production model based on the FCV Concept introduced by the company at the 2013 Tokyo motor show.

    This concept has specifications nearly identical to those of Honda’s third-generation hydrogen car, with similar promised power output, driving range, fuel capacity and cold-weather tolerance. The FCV, however, surrenders a seating position to accommodate its cell. (Photo: Dan Carney)