Hydrogen fuel cells have returned to the public eye as a handful of automobile manufacturers plan to release their first models for public use. Companies such as Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are all pushing to manufacture more emission-free models in California and Europe. Hydrogen has always been considered too expensive for commercial use. The 2007 Highlander FCHV cost a million dollars to produce. Now prices to manufacture fuel cells have dropped dramatically, allowing for more affordable models. Hyundai is projected to be the first manufacturer to release a hydrogen cell vehicle with Toyota and Honda also scheduled to release sometime next year.
This stems from California’s mandate to produce more emission-free vehicles by subsidizing refueling stations and giving incentives to auto makers who can create a viable alternative to fossil fuels. California requires 15 percent of all cars sold to produce clean emissions by 2015. Not adhering to this mandate would compromise an manufacturer’s ability to sell in the state. The state is planning to build around 100 hydrogen refueling stations over the next 10 years. Europe has also been pushing for zero-emission vehicles. Some Scandinavian countries are heavily taxing new gas and diesel cars and giving tax breaks to buyers of electric and hydrogen.
For now, Hyundai’s release of their fuel cell vehicles are more of a test to see how hydrogen prices will compete against gas and diesel. Their Tucson fuel-cell model will be leased for about $499 per month and only to those who already live near by fueling stations; fuel is included as the cost of hydrogen is still higher than gas. This is not a new tactic as Honda has already leased 20 of its FCX Clarity sedans since 2008.
Critics of fuel cells say the technology is still far from being a viable alternative, stating the price of hydrogen cannot compete with gas as well as the fact that there are virtually no fueling stations to provide adequate supply. The US government has already invested billions of dollars on infrastructure to support battery-powered vehicles and switching to fuel cells would require another huge investment that, for now, is simply unjustified. There are fewer than 15 hydrogen refueling stations in the US.
Fuel cells work by using a chemical reaction that splits the hydrogen from its electrons, thus creating an electric current. Hyundai says their Tucson model can refill in eight minutes, which is very appealing when compared to electric cars. Tesla’s S model electric vehicle takes up to an hour to recharge using a 240 volt link. Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada expressed doubts about battery-powered vehicles, stating they would not compete due to their limited range, high cost and long recharge times.
So far, GM has stated they currently have no plans for a commercialized fuel-cell vehicle until at least 2020. Ford has stated they have no current plans of producing a fuel-cell vehicle for sale.
With the push for manufacturers to find an alternative to fossil fuel, many are turning to hydrogen fuel cell technology as a promising venue. Toyota’s Senior Vice President of Automotive Operations, Bob Carter, said “Fuel cells will be in our future…and in greater numbers than anyone expected.” Whether fuel cells can deliver on all their claims will be of great interest in the years to come.
By Eric Ohm
Wall Street Journal