Automakers respond to tough questions about fuel cells

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

Fuel cell vehicles – love ‘em or hate ‘em, they’re here. The Toyota Mirai made its debut at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, and is scheduled to go on sale next year. The 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell has been available for lease since June. Honda plans to launch its hydrogen offering within two years.

Our colleague John Voelcker of Green Car Reports recently summed up the side of the fuel cell vehicle (FCV) skeptics, publishing a list of questions for execs at Hyundai, Toyota, and Honda. To their credit, all three carmakers responded, and so did the California Fuel Cell Partnership (Part 1, Part 2).

Their voluminous answers (Hyundai alone submitted six single-spaced pages, with numerous notes) probably won’t change many minds, and, as with any new technology, some of the most important questions won’t be answered until FCVs have been on the market for a few years. However, it’s interesting that the automakers do seem to care what the “EV press” thinks. And it’s obvious that there’s a lot of interest in this new technology (GCR’s series of articles has already generated well over 1,000 reader comments).

Much of the material was devoted to reiterating the drawbacks of current EVs (limited range, long charging times), which battery boosters believe will gradually go away, eliminating FCVs’ advantages. The fuel cell makers aren’t having any of this. “We can all speculate about future potential product innovations, like advanced battery technologies, but at this point they are just that: speculation,” said Hyundai.

The automakers touted the advantages of fuel cells in larger vehicles, noting that half of all new vehicles sold in the US are pickups, SUVs and such. “To scale up in vehicle size, there are exponentially diminishing returns to adding battery, as the added weight requires added structural reinforcements and decreases vehicle efficiency,” said Toyota.

In response to Voelcker’s question about what companies see a profitable business in building hydrogen stations, the California Fuel Cell Partnership said, “Most current stations are developed by industrial gas companies, including Air Products, Air Liquide, and Linde. New companies such as Hydrogen Frontier, First Element Fuel, and Stratos Fuel see a future in [selling hydrogen]. The first 100 stations in California are co-funded by the state through a competitive grant process. We’re starting to see some lower costs in the grant requests, particularly with 100-percent renewable stations.”

One of Voelcker’s questions pointed out that hydrogen is generally considered a less efficient energy storage medium than batteries. However, this issue can get very complex when you consider how the electricity or hydrogen is generated, and advocates on opposing sides tend to refer to different sets of figures. More to the point, while efficiency is of great importance to engineers, it’s probably not on the radar of most car buyers. Hyundai conceded that, “It is generally understood that battery-electric vehicles are a more efficient pathway for electricity utilization in transportation,” but added that very few consumers buy solely on energy efficiency considerations if the most efficient vehicle doesn’t meet their needs.


Source: Green Car Reports


    It’s hard to imagine many folks being willing to pay $499/mo for a Toyota Mirai or Hyundai Tucson when so many more capable EVs are available from $199 (Focus Electric as low as $159, Volt available as low as $179). The new Kia Soul EV and VW e-Golf are $299 including Quick Charge. Even the BMW i3 can be had for as low as $369.

    There are a lot of choices at ~ $4,680 to $12,240 less over three years than the hydrogen cars. Enough to lease another very nice gas burning car if you need to go long distances on a regular basis and didn’t want a plug-in hybrid. Renting or car share would likely be more practical and a whole lot cheaper.

    That’s a pretty big price premium for a car that has only about a dozen places to fuel today and a few dozen at best in the next few years.

  • vike

    To say these answers won’t change many minds is a bit of an understatement. Yes, Toyota makes a reasonable case for H2 in pickup trucks and/or over the road big rigs (a similar point has been made about aircraft); H2’s storage and “bleed off” problems matter a lot less when the fuel is consumed relatively quickly after fueling, as it would be for hauling applications. But what does any of that have to do with the Mirai vs., e.g., the LEAF?

    As to whether consumers buy solely on energy efficiency, obviously not, but operating costs certainly matter. H2 from refactoring is going to be either dinged for carbon emissions or saddled with sequester costs, while “cracking water” takes lots of electricity – all contributing to H2 costs at the pump.

    Toyota et al are convinced that we don’t yet have the technology for ZEVs to be practical, a convenient assessment for any company with massive investments (hence a competitive edge) in the design and manufacture of ICEVs. H2FC is a stalling tactic by such companies, who hope to divert electrification efforts and quotas with a technological red herring. For now, they’ve succeeded in getting outsized credits for the H2FCVs they sell, delaying the need for developing BEVs to meet CARB requirements (assuming they can find buyers for overpriced cars that can’t leave CA, though highly subsidized lease-only deals might get the job done). Down the road, whether they really expect to deliver ZEVs when the time is “right” is anybody’s guess, but they certainly seem committed to making sure that time is later rather than sooner. If government regulators stick to their guns, Toyota and GM are going to be left holding an empty bag – and they’ll need to fill it with technology purchased from better prepared competitors.