Why automakers will build more hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

Toyota plans to start selling a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the U.S. in 2015
Toyota plans to start selling a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the U.S. in 2015
(Christopher Jue / EPA)

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could soon gain ground on electric cars in the race to develop zero-emission cars, according to a new report.

The auto industry is seeing a convergence of factors that make fuel cell cars more viable, according to the Institute of Transportation Studies at UC Davis.

Major automakers are pushing the technology. Hyundai began leasing its Tucson fuel cell crossover in Southern California earlier this year, targeting the handful of communities that have hydrogen fueling stations. Toyota and Honda plan to bring out their first mass-market fuel cell vehicles next year.


UC Davis transit experts say the key to this rollout is building clusters of hydrogen stations in urban and regional markets.

“We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition,” said Joan Ogden, a UC Davis environmental science professor and director of Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways. “The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles, rather than decades.”

The researchers calculated that a targeted regional investment of $100 million to $200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 fuel cell vehicles would be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis. And that investment is poised to happen in at least three places: California, Germany and Japan. California, for example, plans to spend $46 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel stations.

Also helping pave the way for the zero-emission cars are the continually declining expenses for the development of fuel cell vehicles and hydrogen station components, the report says. Ample low-cost natural gas for making hydrogen also helps.

Once people get the chance to see and drive the cars, consumer acceptance should be good, Ogden said.

“Hydrogen fuel cell cars offer consumer value similar or superior to today’s gasoline cars,” Ogden said. “The technology readily enables large vehicle size, a driving range of 300 to 400 miles, and a fast refueling time of three to five minutes.”


Other factors powering adoption of the hydrogen cars include:

—Consumer incentives such as vehicle purchase subsidies, tax exemptions, free parking and access to freeway carpool lanes.

—Global public funding of $1 billion a year for research and development of hydrogen cars and infrastructure. Moreover, UC Davis calculates that automakers have spent more than $9 billion on fuel cell development.

Near-term prospects for plentiful, low-cost hydrogen are good because of the boom in natural gas. The researchers said that cost effectively producing low-carbon hydrogen from renewable sources holds promise for greater greenhouse gas emission reductions.

But Ogden said fuel cell vehicles still face many bumps in the road.

“Hydrogen faces a range of challenges, from economic to societal, before it can be implemented as a large-scale transportation fuel,” Ogden said. “The question isn’t whether fuel cell vehicles are technically ready: They are. But how do you build confidence in hydrogen’s future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers, and, of course, for consumers?”

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