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Hydrogen cars: Ready for the roads?

The technology for vehicles powered by fuel cells is established, and is set for market. However, the biggest challenge will be to make sure the fuel is available when the cars are available.

Chris Hostetter, group vice president of strategic planning for Toyota Motor Sales, believes the automotive industry will change more in the next 10 years than the last 100 years. A century ago there was great competition among the different fuels and manufacturing. Today we are looking at non-carbon fuels, and non-combustion engines.

We are beginning to see the early stages of what Hostetter call the “hydrogen economy”. The technology is established: hydrogen combined with oxygen in fuel cells creates the electricity that drives the car itself, with the output being water vapour. But one of biggest challenges is getting the infrastructure started – to make sure the fuel is available when the cars are available. It’s very difficult for the industry to move away from petrol to a new fuel format, and the investment in fuel is normally done by the fuel supplier.

There is a diversity of fuels out there, but in terms of clean, sustainable fuels Hostetter says there are only two key technologies: electric cars and hydrogen cars. The former is good for shorter, urban drives, while he thinks the latter is better for larger vehicles and over longer distances.

With most technologies it takes about 10-20 years to get them to their peak. Five years ago hydrogen vehicles were over $1 million dollars, and still in the research lab. Hostetter says they have made great improvements since then. For instance, the catalyst has less platinum, vehicles are more durable and can last for 10 years. The fuel cell is ready for market, he says.

So, Hostetter is confident that this is the car of the future. On the streets of California in 2050, he says we will only see either electric or fuel cell vehicles powering the fleet.

Chris Hostetter spoke to BBC Future at the Aspen Ideas Festival.

Additional footage: Courtesy: BBC News archive and Shutterstock

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