Are Fuel Cell Cars Ready for Prime Time?

Vehicles powered by hydrogen-powered fuel cells and are capable of running for 300 miles on a tank of fuel could be sitting in America’s driveways within a few years. At least that’s what major carmakers, including Toyota, General Motors, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, Nissan, Hyundai, and Honda, think.

Toyota's Hydrogen powered Fuel Cell Vehicle or FCV meets the press.

Toyota’s Hydrogen powered Fuel Cell Vehicle or FCV meets the press.

Fuel cells are devices that make use of an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity. Fuel cells are one of the greenest technologies around; if they work properly, the only pollution fuel cells create is water vapor.

Even though fuel cells have been around since the 19th Century, it has taken a long time to perfect a fuel cell car that actually runs. Now it seems that automakers have licked that problem, and a number of fuel-cell powered vehicles have started popping up at auto shows.

Fuel Cell Vehicles About to Hit the Road

Some of the proposed fuel cell autos out there include:

  • Hyundai’s fuel-cell powered Tucson Crossover, which will first be sold in Los Angeles and Orange Counties in California. The payments on the fuel cell Tucson will be $499 a month; Hyundai will pay for the hydrogen fuel. No word on exactly when it will hit the market.
A Tuscon Crossover gets a tank of hydrogen at a Southern California "gas station."

A Tuscon Crossover gets a tank of hydrogen at a Southern California “gas station.”

 

  • Toyota’s fuel cell vehicle, or FCV, has cropped up at auto shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo. It’s basically a Prius sedan that has a fuel cell in place of the gasoline engine. The New York Times reported that the FCF could be in showrooms as early 2015. The price tag is expected to be around $50,000.

 

  • Toyota has also tested fuel cell versions of its Highlander SUV and Lexus HS 250 in California. It isn’t clear if these vehicles will be sold to the public or not.

 

  • Honda’s FCX Clarity, limited numbers of which are available for lease in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.

 

  • GM’s fuel powered Chevrolet Equinox, which has been tested by consumers but not sold to the public.

 

  • An alliance between Ford, Renault-Nissan, and Daimler (owner of Mercedes Benz) plans to develop and market unspecified fuel cell vehicles by 2017.

 

  • An alliance between GM and Honda plans to produce fuel cell vehicles by 2020.

 

  • Toyota and BMW also have an arrangement to share fuel cell technology.



 Fuel Cell Cars Could Be a Tough Sell

There are still some serious problems that could block the widespread introduction of fuel cells.

The biggest roadblock to fuel cell technology is lack of gas stations for the vehicles. Currently, there are only around nine gas stations that provide hydrogen to fuel cell vehicles, all of which are in Southern California, where vehicles have been tested. There are plans to open another 12 stations by early next year.

fuelcell

Opening new stations could be a real challenge because it cost $1 million to build a hydrogen fueling station. For such a station to be practical, you’ll also have to have a source of hydrogen, usually an oil refinery, which will produce hydrogen as a byproduct nearby. That’s why fuel cell cars are being tested in Southern California where there are lots of oil refineries.

Safety Problems

Another potential drawback is safety. As anybody who’s seen the old newsreel footage of the Zeppelin Hindenburg knows, hydrogen burns. The Hindenburg, which was filled with hydrogen, went up in a ball of flames in the late 1930s.

Toyota thinks it has solved the safety problem by making new hydrogen gas tanks out of next generation of carbon fiber materials. Toyota executive Craig Scott told The San Francisco Chronicle that it would take a 50 caliber machine gun bullet to pierce the tank.

Obviously, both consumers and insurance companies will have to be convinced that Mr. Scott’s claims are correct to get lots of fuel cell vehicles on the road. Auto insurance companies might be the real stumbling block for fuel cell cars, particularly if they start burning up like some Tesla S Series sedans have recently.

Like natural gas powered vehicles and electric cars, fuel cell powered vehicles will have to fight for a place in an increasingly crowded auto market. Their success may depend on the price of gas and diesel fuel and the public’s willingness to embrace new automotive technologies.

Even with these problems, it looks like the technology for fuel cars has been perfected. Now all we have to do is wait and see if the auto-buying public is ready for hydroge- powered vehicles or not.