Fuel Cell Vehicles Slowly Gain Steam

In late January General Motors and Honda formed a joint venture and announced plans to invest $85-million to build fuel cell stacks at a GM plant in Michigan. The venture, which expands the fuel cell development partnership the companies launched in 2013, will make fuel cell stacks that both companies plan to use in their own vehicles by about 2020. The new stacks promise to be smaller, lighter and less expensive than existing units, according to the partners. 

The GM-Honda program underscores the auto industry’s fascination with the potential for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), which some view as the ultimate long-term green car solution. As with battery-based electric vehicles, FCVs don’t generate any greenhouse pollutants—they only emit a small amount of water—while providing driving ranges and refueling times close to those of conventional gasoline vehicles. But high costs, technology challenges, lack of a hydrogen infrastructure and minimal consumer awareness have kept FCVs mainly on the sidelines. 

Toyota and Honda began leasing a small number of prototype-like FCVs in 2002, with Hyundai joining in a few years later. All three companies refined their technologies and have launched more mainstream models in recent years. Sales, however, remain dismal. Toyota, which launched its midsize Mirai in 2015, is the FCV volume leader in the U.S. with sales of just over 1,000 units in 2016. The company had hoped to triple output this year and grow to about 30,000 by early next decade, but it shipped fewer than 100 Mirais to customers in January.

A longtime cheerleader of FCVs, Toyota took its support to the next level by buying a 30-second commercial for the Mirai during last month’s Super Bowl. Highlighting the car’s environmental bona fides, the ad shows the car watering a daisy as it drives over the flower. But the commercial only aired in San Francisco and Los Angeles. That’s because the only state the Mirai currently is available in is California—as is the case with the Honda Clarity and Hyundai Tucson FCVs—where the bulk of hydrogen fueling stations are located. Bulk may not be the best word, considering there were just 33 public hydrogen stations in the U.S. and 285 worldwide at the end of last year. Washington, D.C.-based Information Trends predicts the number of hydrogen stations in the U.S. will swell to about 200 in five years and top 1,200 by 2032. 

Technical advances also continue to be made. The fuel cell stack in Honda’s latest Clarity model, which was launched in December, is one-third the size with a 60 percent greater power density than its predecessor. The Clarity sedan has a fuel economy rating of 67 mpg and a driving range of 366 miles. The latter is an industry best for any fuel cell or pure electric vehicle in the U.S. The Mirai is rated at 66 mpg with a 312-mile range. Hyundai’s Tucson FCV trails the pack at 49 mpg and 265 mpg—a next-generation model due in 2020 is expected to cover 350 miles per hydrogen tank. The Mirai and Clarity both cost about $60,000, which includes free fuel for three years. The Tucson can only be leased. 

Several other automakers are readying their own FCVs. Mercedes, which has been testing the B-Class F-Cell for several years, hopes to introduce the GLC F-Cell late this year. Kia, Nissan and BMW all are targeting launches by early next decade. Nissan also is working on a system that uses a solid-oxide fuel cell that promises to be less expensive and extend the driving range over current FCVs equipped with proton-membrane-exchange stacks. 

GM, which tested an FCV in 1966 and has invested more than $2.5-billion in related technology over the years, has taken a cautious approach. Executives say the company was ready to launch an FCV in 2010 but decided to wait until the technology advanced more and consumers were ready to accept FCVs. The new JV with Honda suggests that FCVs may soon be ready for a chance at prime time. But they’ll be competing against next-gen EVs with extended driving ranges and quicker charge times. Game on.  

 

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With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public relations company.