An Array of Choices Are Available
With environmental concerns and economic worries, many people have made the decision to buy green vehicles. Cars that are labeled “green” are either those that are environmentally friendly and provide less harm to the environment than similar internal combustion engine cars or those that use alternative fuels.
Purchasing and driving a green car provides a few benefits to both the driver and the environment. First of all, green cars leave a smaller carbon footprint on the environment by releasing fewer emissions. In addition to keeping the air cleaner, these vehicles also offer better gas efficiency, sometimes better than 40 miles per gallon, and a lower lifetime cost for the car. Although the initial purchase price may be higher for a green car, owners often receive government incentives, and the benefits of buying less gas make this car a more economical choice over time.
When choosing to purchase a green car, a new buyer must first evaluate his or her vehicle needs and budget to determine the best type of car. Next, a buyer should consider the vehicles with the highest green scores among cars and trucks that meet his or her requirements, taking into account fuel efficiency and emissions.
There are a few different categories of green vehicles that should be considered in any car purchase.
Clean Diesel Cars
2016 BMW 328d xDrive Sports Wagon–a diesel option
A combination of cleaner, ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel, advanced engines and effective emissions control, results in clean diesel cars that achieve nearly zero emissions. These vehicles typically burn less fuel overall, which means that the cost per mile of driving a clean diesel vehicle is lower than that of typical cars.
In addition to less fuel burned and lower gas costs, clean diesel is also responsible for fewer greenhouse emissions per mile in comparison to normal gas-powered cars. This distinction is important because many modern diesel engines are currently under intense scrutiny by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other governing bodies after Volkswagen was found to have cheated federal emissions tests since 2009.
Additional “green” diesel options are renewable diesel fuel and biodiesel, which offer a renewable and clean-burning replacement fuel for traditional diesel. Most diesel engines can run on these bio-based diesel fuels with little modifications needed, although buyers should note that biodiesel cannot be used other than in low blends (5 to 20 percent) in most modern diesel vehicles. Renewable diesel, because it meets the same specification as petroleum diesel, can be run at higher blends.
Although clean diesel and bio-based diesel vehicles are more expensive than traditional gas-powered vehicles, their total cost of ownership is usually lower. They offer their owners the possibility to drive many highway miles thanks to their excellent gas mileage and torque.
Natural Gas Cars
Natural gas vehicles run on Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which is mostly methane stored at high pressure. It is generally considered that they produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than
The last CNG standing
most cars with traditional engines. However, buyers should note that since methane is a high GHG pollutant, this potentially negates the tailpipe emissions benefits of CNG when upstream emissions are considered.
While many consider natural gas vehicles to be greener and better for the environment than gasoline-powered vehicles, they face several obstacles that make them less popular. There are very few natural car options for consumers to choose. Natural gas is mostly used to power work trucks, while the only car model currently available is bi-fuel Chevy Impala. Much of this market stagnation is because fuel is difficult to find, and the vehicles do not always perform the same as those using traditional gasoline.
In addition, some drivers see using such natural gas as fuel as unethical due to the use of fracking to obtain the fuel. When hydraulic rigs pump water and chemicals down into an oil or gas well, high pressure is created that forms cracks in the rock protecting the underground oil or gas. Once those rocks are cracked open, the resources can be recovered more easily. The process itself has caused controversy because it has led to horizontal drilling rather than vertical, putting water sources and areas sitting on top of these horizontal lines at risk. Because of this unsafe practice, some eco-conscious consumers are opposed to using natural gas vehicles.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCVs)
A car for the future–the Toyota Mirai
A type of vehicle that relies on a fuel cell system rather than a traditional engine is known as a fuel cell vehicle (FCV). These vehicles use a combination of hydrogen and oxygen to power an electric motor. Because FCV technology is still relatively new in its automotive applications, there are currently only a few vehicle models available for purchase, and they are only available in limited areas where a fueling infrastructure is available.
Like other electric vehicles, these have no smog or greenhouse gas tailpipe emissions; however, there may be pollutant emissions that come from the process of producing and transporting hydrogen fuel to the vehicle. It does not take long to fill a hydrogen vehicle, but the new technology has not yet resulted in many public hydrogen filling stations, making the use of this type of car difficult at this time.
Hybrid cars developed as a nice fuel combination for those who are interested in improving a vehicle’s environmental impact while also having the ease of a traditional car. Hybrids contain both a gas engine and an electric motor, and usually the vehicle’s system chooses which is used at which time to propel the car.
The poster child of hybrids–the Toyota Prius
Because of their ability to use electricity, hybrids are able to cut fuel consumption in comparison to many of their gasoline-only competitors. The use of electricity also means that pollution and emissions can be reduced.
Whereas hybrids were once seen as a cutting-edge vehicle option, purchasing a hybrid today is a relatively conservative choice. The longer time on the market has made hybrid cars reliable. They essentially work like a traditional car, so most mechanical issues have been resolved and many mechanics know how to repair them. There are no major lifestyle changes necessary in order to purchase or drive a hybrid vehicle.
The initial purchase price of a hybrid car can be more expensive than a gas-only vehicle because of the more sophisticated technology involved. While these cars can pay for themselves in time based on the number of miles the buyer drives, some may never fully recoup the purchase price. However, hybrids are an excellent choice for people who want a simple, well-established green car with few lifestyle changes.
A plug-in hybrid car usually uses both the gas and electric motor to turn its wheels, either at different times or together. The electric motor uses rechargeable batteries that can be plugged in to
The Chevy Volt is the best-known plug-in hybrid
recharge. This method of powering the vehicle allows the car to run for many miles efficiently and inexpensively until the batteries are run down. At that point, the driver has the option to refuel at a gas station if necessary to continue driving.
Many of the same issues that plague electric cars hinder the popularity of plug-in hybrids as well. Although the number of plug-in hybrid vehicles is constantly growing, there are currently only few of these vehicles available. This makes it difficult to shop for and purchase one, and tax incentives are at a lower rate than for pure electric cars. The initial purchase price of a plug-in hybrid is typically lower than that of an electric car because the battery pack is somewhat smaller. These are nice vehicles for car owners who are not ready for an electric car, but who are interested in a green alternative.
Nissan’s Leaf has led the way in affordable pure electrics
Electric cars run purely on electric motors, or more specifically on electricity stored in their rechargeable batteries or another energy storage option.
As with many green vehicles, there are some financial incentives for purchasing an electric car. Depending on how far the car is driven daily, it may only need to be plugged in and charged at home each night. In that case owners might need 240-volt charging equipment to keep the vehicle ready to drive daily. With fewer moving parts than gas cars, servicing an electric car is usually more affordable.
Buyers should keep in mind that electric cars are more expensive than gas-powered cars, and that there are not that many recharging stations available nationwide. However, their appeal will certainly increase over time as supportive infrastructure for electric cars increases and prices come down. At this time, electric vehicles are best suited for buyers who are committed to making an environmental difference and to dealing with the driving and charging limitations.
The choice of which green car to buy really comes down to the preferences and the lifestyle of the buyer. Deep-green buyers who want zero emissions should choose an electric car charged with solar electricity or some other type of low-carbon power source, such as hydroelectric or wind power. Light-green buyers may be more interested in gas-only vehicles that get high miles-per-gallon gas mileage using new technologies like advanced transmissions, improved aerodynamics and turbochargers.
Although many of these alternative energy cars began as niche products, interest in them has expanded quickly due to federal emissions regulations and policies, as well as an overall awareness of the need to protect the environment from damaging vehicle emissions. As more car buyers continue to turn to green choices, more environmentally friendly designs and productions will become necessary from the automakers.
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Company Loves Its Hybrids But Likes Hydrogen Better Than Electricity.
The race to provide the car of the future is heating up and it should surprise no one that one of the world’s largest car companies, Toyota, is right in the middle of chase to provide it. For Toyota, that future car is powered by a fuel cell that produces electricity on-board from hydrogen.
Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager of advanced technologies, brought that message recently to a meeting of the Western Automotive Journalists, a Northern California-based group of auto writers.
Scott points to the future
Scott’s message was clear–the car’s are real, they’ll be on sale next year and they will deliver what consumers want in a car while helping the automaker to meet tightening emissions regulations around the globe. Toyota’s fuel cell story is in sync with its competitors Hyundai and Honda, who are also ready to enter the market, as well as other companies that will follow–Daimler/Mercedes, Ford, Nissan, General Motors and BMW. The cars will offer a range comparable to gas models and a similar fill up time (both advantages cited for offering a fuel cell electric car as opposed to a battery electric one). The catch, of course, is where those fill ups will take place. As Scott reported, the state California has dedicated $20 million a year for the next decade to put 100 stations in place, augmenting the meager network of nine that exist right now.
Because fuel cell vehicles have no emissions of either criteria pollutants or greenhouse gases (GHG), they fit California’s quest for zero emission vehicles and help the automaker meet U.S. federal and other countries’ goals for reduced GHGs.
Zoomy Concept Shown
The concept fuel cell FCHV (for Fuel Cell Hybrid Vehicle to remind of Toyota’s bread-and-butter advanced technology) sedan Toyota has been showing was unveiled at the Tokyo Auto Show last year and most recently showed up at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Scott indicated that next year’s production car would use the zoomy styling of the concept, though not all of the details of the show car would make it to the
An aggressive alternative fuel
street. Costs of the fuel cell “engine” hardware have dropped significantly in the last few years, Scott said, meaning the cars that go on sale in 2015 may still be more expensive than their petroleum-powered cousins, but they won’t cost automakers the $1 million the prototypes did during the past decade. Costs and prices are expected to drop further as production volumes ramp up in the 2020s and other advances in technology, such as reducing the amount of exotic metals like platinum, come on board.
The advances and volumes are expected to come not just because consumers are expected to snatch up great numbers of fuel cell cars when they get to the market, but because automakers have banded together to share costs and collaborate to move the technology forward. Toyota is working with BMW, Ford, Daimler and Nissan are working together, GM and Honda have formed an alliance while Hyundai is going it alone and Fiat-Chrysler appears to be sitting out this round.
The Market Begins
Although both Honda and Mercedes have been leasing limited number of their fuel cell cars for a couple years, Hyundai will be the first on the retail market with a real push. Michael O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of corporate and product planning, told the Governor’s Office Summit on Zero Emission Vehicles (March 7, 2014) that the first load of Tucson FCEVs (Hyundai uses the more conventional Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
Future fueling too?
nomenclature) will ship from Korea in 3-4 weeks, arriving in April and going on sale mid-May at four dealerships in Southern California. Hyundai previously announced it would offer a $2,999 down, $499 lease that includes free fuel and maintenance for the three years of the lease. Hyundai’s also going to make the Tucson FCEV available for rent through Enterprise Rent-a-Car.
Scott said Toyota isn’t ready to talk pricing on its fuel cell sedan, but it can be expected to be competitive. We’ve seen the same dynamic at work in the electric car space, where the limited market has driven all the automakers to offer very similar discounted leases. Toyota executives have also said they will approach their fuel cell vehicles with the kind of patience they showed with the Prius hybrid introduction. That technology took almost a decade before it took hold in the market, but Toyota has said they’re in it for the long haul and will be able to continue investing in the technology until the market catches up with it.
Taking a page from the Tesla playbook, Scott also said Toyota is planning to augment any public hydrogen stations with a network of its own, which may be a key way of reassuring new buyers that they will be able to refuel. In the same vein, Honda recently demonstrated a quick refueling station that reduces the fill time to about three minutes, more than comparable to the time spent with a gas or diesel car.
While Toyota and Honda both showed off concept versions of their upcoming fuel cell cars, Hyundai introduced theirs as a Tucson-based model, virtually indistinguishable from the gas version except for badging. Hyundai corrected that by introducing the Intrado FCEV concept at the Geneva Auto Show.
Expect the drumbeat of fuel cell announcements to continue through the year as automakers gear up for more of the cars appearing on the market. Much of the news will be California-centric, but other centers of fuel cell infrastructure and vehicles can be found in Germany, Japan and Korea with England, Denmark and Singapore also in the mix.
Photos by Michael Coates & the manufacturers
Published March 8, 2014
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Electric cars running on hydrogen, creating their own electricity as they drive, are officially no longer the cars of the distant future. As Hyundai Motor America president and CEO John Frafcik said last week: “The future is much closer than you think.” Come spring, you can go to a select Southern California Hyundai dealer (one near the growing hydrogen station infrastructure), put down $2999 and drive away in a Tucson fuel cell car, a compact SUV with water as its only tailpipe emission, a 300-mile range on a tank of free (for the life of the $499/month loan) fuel, and free Concierge Service (like that offered with the Equus model). In other words, Hyundai is ushering in the hydrogen age and doing its best to make it an easy transition for the early adopters who choose to shift to zero emission driving. It made the announcement at the Los Angeles Auto Show, creating a stir among the more mundane introductions of conventional cars and trucks.
Hyundai, which has made a commitment to produce several thousand Tucson FCEVs on the same assembly line as its gas-powered cousin, is not alone as both Honda and Toyota will have their own fuel cells on sale in 2015. Both companies showed off concept cars hinting at the look of their 2015 FCEV sedans. Honda’s car, shown at the LA Auto Show a few hours before Hyundai’s announcement, was a futuristic design that will probably be tamed down for production, but clearly takes a page from its initial foray into hybrids with the 2000 Insight. Toyota’s FCEV, which was introduced at the Tokyo Auto Show, featured more conventional styling but carried the same promise as Hyundai of a consumer-friendly market approach.
Others Will Join In The Fuel Cell Parade
Of course, Mercedes, General Motors, Nissan, Ford, BMW and Volkswagen are not far behind the three leaders. All have their fuel cell cars ready to roll out (and some have done limited marketing as have Hyundai, Honda and Toyota) and are expected to hit the market prior to 2020.
The big hang up for fuel cells has been the refueling infrastructure. Unlike pure electric cars, which can rely on the ubiquity of electricity for easy, if slow, refueling, FCEVs need a network of stations to truly become a technology that can replace the internal combustion engine. Governments in Germany, Japan and Korea (and a few other spots in the world) have committed to build that infrastructure and California fell in line this year when it passed a bill to fund up to 100 stations, most of which will be located in Southern California where the cars will see their initial rollout.
Early adopters opting for the 2015 Tucson FCEV will get quite a deal. For comparison, we ran the numbers for a base gas-powered 2014 Tucson in Southern California. A 36-month lease with $2,999 down would give you $544/month payments – and you’d have to pay for your own gas and service!
Honda and Toyota didn’t have the retail details that Hyundai offered, but they made it clear that 2015 would be the introduction date of their fuel cell vehicles, which in the U.S. also will be targeted to the Southern California region with an infrastructure to support the cars.
The Hyundai Fuel Cell Deal
At the introduction, Hyundai’s Krafcik ticked off the advantages his company sees in fuel cell vehicles, compared with pure battery electrics. He also said there was plenty of room in the market for both types of zero emission vehicles, but FCEVs offered:
- Driving range of 300 miles,
- Capable of refueling in less than 10 minutes,
- Minimal reduction in daily utility compared with its gasoline counterpart,
- Minimal cold-weather effects, and
- Extensive crash, fire and leak testing.
What fuel cells share with battery electrics is instantaneous torque from its electric motor, good daily reliability and long-term durability, few moving parts, quiet operation and zero greenhouse gas emissions from operation. Krafcik noted that a UC Irvine study done this year found the well-to-wheels emissions of fuel cell vehicles to be lower not only than gas or diesel vehicles, but also battery electrics.
In addition to the straight sales pitch, Krafcik also said that the Tucson FCEVs will be available as rentals through Enterprise.
Honda Fuel Cell Concept
Honda Gets Zoomy With Its Next Fuel Cell
Honda, while adamant about the 2015 launch of its next generation fuel cell car, was less committal about planned volumes or price at the LA Auto Show. Honda has been leasing its FCX Clarity fuel cell for several years, but in very small volumes. Honda reviewed its history getting the public into its fuel cell cars, noting that the next generation’s fuel cell stack (the “engine” for an FCEV) will have a 60 percent power density improvement over the one used in the Clarity. The stack also is 30 percent smaller than its predecessor and costs have been reduced.
The Honda FCEV is a five-passenger sedan, similar in exterior size to its current FCX Clarity, but with a more spacious interior because of the smaller fuel cell stack. Honda didn’t release exterior dimensions of the concept, but said its stack would yield more than 100 KW of power output and would deliver a driving range of more than 300 miles.
Toyota Fuel Cell Concept
Like Honda, Toyota chose an auto show to unveil a concept version of the fuel cell sedan it will launch in 2015. The Camry-size four-passenger sedan, unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show last week, is a less radical design than Honda’s, appearing to be much closer to the production intent for the production version. Its released dimensions indicate it is slightly longer overall than a Camry (191.7 inches compared to 189.2 for for the Camry), has a wheelbase that is almost identical and is about a half-inch narrower. Toyota said its new fuel cell stack has a power density similar to Honda’s at 3 kW/liter, which they said represents more than twice that of its current stocks. The company also claimed reduced size and costs. Automotive News quoted Toyota officials as saying that fuel cell cars by 2020 will cost roughly the same as a plug-in hybrid to produce.
Toyota’s 2015 FCEV Concept
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The fifth annual “Future Cars, Future Technology” event put on by the Western Automotive Journalists’ association on Oct. 17, offered several glimpses of the future. You could drive a prototype electric Volkswagen Golf, due to go on sale next year, or hear an executive from the California Air Resources Board predict that future pickup trucks would be powered by fuel cells. Or you could hear that according to Stanford’s Dr. Sven Beiker we don’t really know what distraction is so figuring out how to deal with it is going to be more complicated than simply banning texting.
The symposium, sponsored by Club Auto Sport, Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, Fiat, Ford, General Motors, Kia, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, started with a hands-on view of the divergent paths that the auto world is currently taking. In the parking lot available for driving evaluations were five different approaches to the automotive future:
- Pure electric cars, which were represented by the prototype e-Golf, Chevy Spark EV, Fiat 500e and Ford Focus Electric.
- Plug-in hybrids represented by the Ford C-Max Energi.
- Hybrids were represented by the Kia Optima Hybrid and VW Jetta Hybrid.
The Kia Optima Hybrid attracted a crowd
- Diesels representing by a Ram 1500 EcoDiesel, VW Passat TDI and a second Passat TDI running on Solazyme’s SolaDiesel renewable diesel. The latter showcases a biofuel path that would replace petroleum diesel or gasoline with a bio-based fuel that would present a greener carbon footprint as well as reduced emissions.
- Advanced technology gasoline vehicles were represented by the 2014 Mitsubishi Outlander, which, in addition to offering more than 30 mpg in a seven-passenger SUV, has adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and forward collision mitigation. The latter technology will alert the driver of an impending crash and apply the brakes if the driver fails to.
- Missing from the collection of cars and trucks was a fuel cell vehicle. Although that technology path was not present, Toyota and other manufacturers have said they would have vehicles on sales by 2015.
Automotive Electronics/Smartphones & Cars
The technology suite found in the Mitsubishi in the ride-and-drive provided a good segue to the first panel of program, which featured Dr. Beiker and Ford Silicon Valley Lab leader T.J. Giuli discussing new electronic systems in automobiles and whether they are making vehicles safer or less safe by introducing new sources of distraction.
The two agreed that the path forward with electronics was not clear, which consumers expecting more connectivity and technology in cars and automakers challenged to keep up because of the short product cycle for electronics compared to automobiles. “How do we keep up?” Giuli mused. But he added that new features such as AppLink promise to bring smartphone applications seamlessly in the car. Beiker suggested that maybe it was a matter of car companies needing to “explain to consumers what they need” because the market pull at the present was stronger than the technology push.
The vision of an autonomous, self-driving car, while technically feasible now, is still at least a decade away from practical use, according to the panelists.
Zero/Near-zero Emission Cars
Later, discussion turned to powertrains and fuels of the future with Dr. Alberto Ayala, deputy executive officer of the California Air Resources Board (CARB); Dave Barthmuss, group manager, environment, energy & policy communications for General Motors; and Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). The three were challenged to give a view of where the automotive world is headed and what we might be driving as cars move toward the 2025 goal of 54.5 mpg.
Dr. Ayala said “we know the path” we have to take in California to reach state emissions goals; it involves decarbonizing energy and fuels and boosting efficiency in vehicles. “We need to get to zero/near-zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs), which means battery electrics and fuel cells.” The challenge now is to incentivize the market and generate consumer interest in the cars that will help the state reach its goals, he added.
Future Cars Panel
In CARB’s view by 2040 every new car sold has to be a zero emission vehicle and by 2050 the state expects 90 percent of the cars on the road to be ZEVs. The other challenge is to get drivers to reduce the number of miles they drive.
Hwang said the auto industry faces an “innovate or die” situation. High oil prices have radically reshaped the world of the automobile in his view and he sees auto companies changing and adapting to this new world. According to Hwang’s assessment, the industry is making good progress toward the 54.5 mpg goals. He cited a University of Michigan study that found industry fuel economy at an all-time high last year at 29.8 mpg. He also noted that California expects to have 30,000 electric cars registered by the end of 2013, which is about 50 percent higher than had been predicted.
Barthmuss noted that with the introduction of the Cadillac ELR early next year GM will have three electric vehicles on the market – it will join the similar Chevy Volt extended-range EV and the Chevy Spark EV. “We’ve bet the farm on electrification,” he said, noting this is “not a moonshot.” In addition to its electric moves, GM is pursuing a “no silver bullet” approach, introducing stop-start on its high-volume Malibu model this year, adding a bi-fuel gas-CNG Impala model and bumping up fuel economy on vehicles from its full-size pickups to the Corvette (which now gets 29 mpg on the highway).
But he also offered a cautionary note on fuel cells. During his company’s recent Project Driveway that put 100 fuel cell-powered Equinox SUVs in consumer hands, they were limited to two zip codes for distribution of the vehicles because of a lack of infrastructure. Along with limited infrastructure issues, Barthmuss also said his optimism for the future is tempered by the challenge of driving the market in the direction of efficiency.
In questions about the potential trade-offs between focusing on reducing both criteria pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, Ayala admitted that “we want to have our cake and eat it too,” but he held out that the CARB standards (and the federal ones as well) are performance-based so they don’t favor any specific technology and will allow for potential new technology in the future.
Challenged on how large, work-oriented vehicles like full-size pickup trucks (which represent some of the best-selling vehicles in the country) could become zero emission vehicles, Ayala speculated that adding fuel cell technology could be one path industry could take to reach the ZEV goal. He also noted that the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles was being addressed by the state through recent legislation that guaranteed funding for enough stations to support the initial introduction of the vehicles.
To sum up the day-long program and paraphrase the philosopher Heraclitus, the only thing constant about the future will be change. The 100-plus year-old auto industry is heading into uncharted territory as it grapples with change inside and out of the vehicle. Electronic technology promises to radically alter the interaction of the driver and vehicle, even as the propulsion technology and fuel shifts to new ground and, in some cases, necessitating new lifestyles. One thing is clear, “Future Cars, Future Technology” will be an ever-changing topic for years to come.
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Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle
Of course, they never left, but the relentless focus on pure battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids as available zero emissions transportation solutions has overshadowed the technology that many automakers consider the most “elegant” solution to the challenge of replacing the internal combustion engine.
The most recent news is the announcement of a joint venture in hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) between General Motors and Honda. This follows by a couple months a similar alliance between Daimler (Mercedes-Benz), Ford and Nissan. BMW and Toyota have also banded together on fuel cell development.
While the deals sound a lot like pre-competitive alliances that automakers often pursue, the commercial horizon is much sooner for fuel cells than many might realize. Hyundai, one of the few major companies, along with Volkswagen, who is going it alone, has already started series production of 1,000 FCEVs (to be completed by 2015). Toyota’s FCEV goes on sale next year; Honda has built and leased 100 of its Clarity FCEVs; Daimler has built and deployed several hundred of its F-Cell cars. That said, the leap to the next level (thousands of cars instead of the current hundreds) is now expected by 2020.
The Hydrogen Joke
The inside-the-industry joke has been that fuel cell vehicles are the cars of the future—and always will be—with the subtext that the future is perpetually 20 years away. Based on the recent activities in the field, that 20 years may have shrunk to about five.
The attraction of fuel cell vehicles for automakers is clear.
- The cars work just like electric cars;
- They’re quiet,
- They use proven electric motors that provide quick acceleration,
- They present configuration opportunities since the fuel cell is smaller than an engine and can be placed virtually anywhere on the car,
- They don’t have the range issues of battery electric cars because instead of relying on stored electrical energy from a battery, the FCEV creates its own electricity from the hydrogen passing through the fuel cell.
The basic technology is old (more than 150 years old), but it has been honed by automakers and innovators during the past two decades (or in GM’s case, more than four decades) so that its durability and deliverable range is comparable to a gas engine while it is much more efficient and environmentally benign at the tailpipe (the only thing coming out is water vapor). And automakers also can count on extra credit in the CAFE fuel economy game.
Of course, hydrogen fuel cells also have challenges, which are alluded to in the “car of the future” joke. While fuel cell costs are down, they’re still significantly more than that of a traditional gas or diesel engine. Hydrogen, too, even when steam-reformed from currently cheap natural gas, carries a premium. Storing the hydrogen involves having a tank that needs to be of a material that can hold the gaseous fuel in a highly compressed state compared with a gas tank that can be made from relatively cheap composite material. Infrastructure has to be built, unlike ubiquitous gasoline and diesel stations and electric plugs that can be found everywhere.
But that infrastructure is being built around the world. California just offered $20 million for companies to continue to build stations needed for the initial vehicle launches and Korea, Japan, Germany and other countries have active government-industry coalitions ramping up stations.
While it still has some significant hurdles, the hydrogen future appears to be closer than ever with the new alignment within the auto industry. These alliances give them an edge on cost issues and presents a more unified front to skeptics who have written off automakers’ fuel cell focus as a diversion from other technologies like battery electrics. In reality, no automaker can afford to pass on any zero emission technology, particularly one this developed and seemingly ready-to-go. But, as with predictions of battery breakthroughs and magical alternative fuels produced from waste, it would be wise to file these latest announcements and check back in a couple years to see what real progress has been made.
GM’s last fuel cell project, the Chevy Equinoz