What next for fuel cell vehicles?

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Anyone with some experience working with fuel cells and hydrogen should be familiar with the highs and lows of the hype cycle – from the excitement of the 1990s, when fuel cells were just 10 years away from saving the world, to the lows of 2009 when the Obama administration tried to slash US Department of Energy funding for the technology in favor of electric and hybrid vehicles. Much can be said about these hype cycles, but one thing is certain: they can be hugely damaging for research into new technologies, where innovation requires sustained support over many decades. But that’s not how politics works, and the underlying challenge for those operating in R&D arenas has been to sustain such research programs during the good times and the bad.

There is a lesson from history here for the EV world: there is always a crash after a boom, so be prepared, and considering some of the promises that have been made on behalf of EVs, I predict a correction will come.

In contrast, the derision of fuel cells and hydrogen has bottomed out and we seem to be experiencing a resurgence of interest. One of the most promising signs is the consolidation between some major players, such as the Ford and Daimler alliance with Ballard and the spin-off Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation venture, which has been extended to share information with Nissan. Additionally, BMW recently announced plans to license Toyota fuel cell technology to build a prototype in 2015. With fuel cell vehicle launches scheduled by all the major players for 2015/16, it seems they have decided the best way to deliver on the promises made a decade ago is to work together in the present.

Parallel to the supplier/OEM tech challenge to fuel cells is the development of a refueling infrastructure – and here, too, the major players have been working tirelessly. By agreeing to synchronize their launches in clusters around the world (Japan/Korea, California, Germany/UK), the intention is to avoid a chicken and egg problem in the first few years of market launch when there will only be tens of thousands of fuel cell vehicles by achieving a local density of customers that will persuade investors and governments to build the infrastructure. To be the first solo mover in this case seems to be a disadvantage, but there does genuinely seem to be an alliance of vehicle manufacturers and refueling providers coming together globally with a credible plan to make success a reality.

However, that all said, we haven’t seen any new fuel cell vehicle launches in recent years. Probably the best-publicized vehicle is the Honda FCX Clarity, although it is now five years old and there are only 200 available in California. So are we going to see a host of new fuel cell vehicles being launched over the next year or two? I hope so, and I eagerly anticipate some strong contenders from Toyota, GM, Nissan, Daimler and Hyundai-Kia, to name a few. Hopefully, within three years, the industry can blow away the hydrogen and fuel cell skeptics, and once and for all get rid of the annoying cliché “they always have been and always will be 10 years away”.

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