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Carmakers Prepare to Shift to Hydrogen Fuel Cells

Despite inherent challenges, manufacturers are investing in hydrogen.
October 28, 2014

​LOS ANGELES – Concerned about slow sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, automakers are increasingly betting the future of green cars on hydrogen fuel cell technology, says an article in the L.A. Times this week. (For more on the future of hydrogen in the convenience channel, see “Fuel for Thought” in the September issue of NACS Magazine.)

Even Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the popular Prius gas-electric hybrid, will use hydrogen instead of batteries to power its next generation of green vehicles. "Today, Toyota actually favors fuel cells over other zero-emission vehicles, like pure battery electric vehicles," Craig Scott, the company's national manager of advanced technologies, told the publication.

But even hydrogen's most ardent proponents agree the technology faces enormous hurdles. Like electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are expensive, as is the refueling infrastructure required to serve them. Car companies have been slow to put hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the market in part because of the lack of fueling stations. Operators of fueling stations, in turn, won't build more retail outlets unless they see more fuel cell car sales.

In California, hydrogen fuel cell car makers and station operators are subsidized by the state of California, which has set a goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission cars on the road by 2025. By the same year, the state wants 15% of all new cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles.

The category includes plug-in hybrids — which can travel a few miles on battery power alone before a gas engine kicks in — but it doesn't include traditional hybrids, which sell at lower cost and in much higher volumes.

Automakers are still working on electric car technology, and sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are up 30% this year over 2013. Still, total sales for zero-emission vehicles represent less than 1% of all cars nationally.

They are more popular in California than anywhere else. The state's drivers own 40% of the nation's zero-emission vehicles, almost all of them plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles. With automakers still struggling to produce a mass-market electric car, fuel cells increasingly look like the ascendant platform. Hydrogen fuel cells are designed to power electric motors much the way batteries do. But instead of storing their energy in a battery pack that takes hours to recharge, the fuel cell vehicles store hydrogen gas in an onboard tank that can be refilled in minutes, just like a gasoline tank.

Despite the risks to entrepreneurs, many believe the future is hydrogen, because fuel cell vehicles address the two main shortcomings of today's battery-powered cars: short driving range and long recharging times. In addition, fuel cell advocates point out that there are multiple sources of hydrogen, including hydro-electric or wind generators, nuclear power plants and natural gas. Some observers caution that the appearance of competing technologies can be misleading. They say the need for clean transportation won't necessarily be found in a single system.

For more on the next generation of fueling, visit FuelsInstitute.org.