MIT Explains Why Toyota and GM are Pushing Hydrogen


Toyota Hydrogen Car

In recent months, GM, Toyota, and Honda have all made big public commitments to put hydrogen fuel cell equipped cars on the road by 2016. Some of their moves can be explained by President Obama’s expected hydrogen push and pressure from oil companies and gas-station owners to keep their infrastructure relevant in a non-petroleum economy.

Hydrogen fueled cars’ primary emissions are, of course, water vapor – so they’re vastly cleaner than petroleum fueled cars at first glance. They also have the potential to be convenient, since they can be refueled in about the same time it takes to fill a liquid fuel tank. Still, despite gas station owners’ vested interest in a liquid-fuel model, they’ve been surprisingly resistant to investing in the technology. Last year, for example, only 27 hydrogen filling stations were added to America’s infrastructure. That’s surprising for a technology that was once “the darling of the Bush administration” (Bush called for $1.2 billion in gov’t funding to develop fuel-cell technology in his 2003 State of the Union address).

Since then, of course, we’ve all learned that there are a lot of questions about just how environmentally friendly hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles actually are when the hydrogen that fuels them comes from natural gas, a fossil fuel that’s produced through highly controversial “fracking” processes that releases huge amounts of carbon dioxide (at best).

So, what’s really going on here? Why the sudden spark of interest? Kevin Bullis, of MIT’s Technology Review magazine, explains that, sometimes, “miracles do happen”.

Since 2009, the costs involved with fuel-cell vehicles have fallen. The prototypes that GM and Toyota built a few years ago cost well over $1 million each. Now Toyota says its goal is to sell its fuel-cell sedan for less than $100,000. Costs fell as Toyota found ways to reduce the number of parts in its fuel-cell system and to decrease the amount of costly platinum needed. The company says it’s pushing hard on R&D for manufacturing technology, among other things, to lower costs still more ahead of the 2015 launch …

… “Costs have come down at a pretty steady rate,” says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute for Transportation Studies at the University of California at Davis and a member of California’s Air Resources Board, which oversees vehicle emissions regulations. “Most people in the auto industry think that, once in large-scale production, cost won’t be a barrier.”

All of that is just a long-winded way of saying “these guys are building hydrogen cars now because they can make money with them.” Looks like Kevin and I have very different definitions of the word “miracle”, you know?

You know.


Source: MIT Technology Review.

About the Author

I’ve been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.

  • Patrick

    Price of unicorns dropping!

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  • Very good article, Jo – thank you for posting this.

    My take on why hydrogen is attempting to take over from gasoline – is that it keeps large companies in control, so they can keep their profits coming.

    • Ulrich

      Neil – you are one smart cookie. Large companies do not have control of the electricity infrastructure, so battery operated cars (which currently run on coal power) are truly independent….not. Wake up! At least the gas/hydrogen infrastructure is privately owned. I suppose you have no capacity to imagine what will happen when the government becomes the only source of power.

      • Renewable energy is spread out all over the place, and no one can stop the sun from shining, or the wind from blowing, or stop the waves on the ocean.

        Renewable energy will be here as long as the sun lasts – about another 5 Billion years.

        Hydrogen is not going to work for all vehicles. But electricity certainly can.


        • jumping jack flash

          Hydrogen is just electricity stored in another way.

          • Except that it is much less efficient than batteries – like 3.5X less efficient.

            And transporting hydrogen is *very* difficult. And fuel cells only last ~75,000 miles, and they are *very* expensive to replace.

            Hydrogen is as expensive as gasoline, or more.

            The range of EV’s is greater than FCEV’s and you can charge an EV almost everywhere. The hydrogen “infrastructure” (if we can call it that?) is *very* limited, and it will cost Billions and Billions to build.

            Because it is hard to make hydrogen, and expensive, and it is hard to transport hydrogen, and it is expensive to build the infrastructure – we would remain fully beholden to large companies – probably the oil companies, into the foreseeable future.

            Electricity, on the other hand, can be generated almost anywhere from renewable sources, the infrastructure is already in place (though it certainly needs updating and improvements) and needs no conversion – and electric drivetrains are 85-92% efficient.

            You cannot beat electricity.

          • jumping jack flash

            Man, an FCEV *is* an EV, but it is better.
            We just need a serial hybrid (or PHEV, or extended range EV, or how you name it) which uses a FC rather than ICE to fill up the battery. If you find an H2 pump, you fill H2, else you fill electricity at home. This would also solve the problem of poor energy density and high costs of batteries: if you have a FC aboard, you just need a 50km/8kWh battery rather than a huge and expensive battery.

            I can’t find on any site current (2014) cost for fuel cells, any link? I know it fell down since previous years cost, so a 2012 datum would not be useful.

          • Right FCEV are actually EV’s but their “range extender” is much more expensive and gives less range than a bigger battery.

            For all the reasons I have mentioned, fuel cell vehicles will never happen on a large scale.

            Show me an affordable, practical fuel cell vehicle that I can buy, and I’ll park it next to my unicorn.

          • jumping jack flash

            As I said, I don’t know anything about FCEVs and FCs prices.

          • Last I heard, the price of a fuel cell is $50-75K. You can’t buy an FCEV – only lease them, so we can’t know the actual cost. I had heard the Honda FCX Clarity cost ~$2,000,000 to build.

            IF and when they sell FCEV’s, we’ll know.

          • jumping jack flash

            50-75 k$ for how many kW?!?




            I heard prices fell by 80% in last 10 years .

          • I don’t know what capacity – the price was referring to the Hyundai, I think? So, whatever capacity is used in that.

            Yes, the fuel cell in the FCX Clarity was supposedly $250,000 – so an 80% drop puts it at $50,000.

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