Toyota Leads Shift To Fuel Cell Cars

Toyota FCEV

Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager of advanced technologies, told the Los Angeles Times this week, “Toyota actually favors fuel cells over other zero-emission vehicles, like pure battery electric vehicles. We would like to be still selling cars when there’s no more gas. And no one is coming to our door asking us to build a new electric car.”

Toyota is not alone. Ford has joined hands with Mercedes, Renault and Nissan to create a fuel cell power train that all 4 companies will share. GM is partnering with Honda on the development of fuel cell technology. Meanwhile, over at Tesla headquarters, CEO Elon Musk has told investors he calls the devices that convert hydrogen into electricity “fool cells” and says they are a “load of rubbish.”

Clearly, there’s a battle for supremacy between battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles shaping up. The two biggest advantages fuel cells offer over battery powered cars are range and refueling times.. Consumers in general don’t care about science or sustainability. They care about convenience and doing what is already familiar to them. Refilling a car with hydrogen is pretty similar to putting gas in the tank and requires about the same amount of time. Those are big pluses for fuel cell cars in the marketplace.

Some say there is room on the roads for both battery and fuel cell cars. “If you have a fuel cell car, you have a longer range between visits to the gas station; but if you plug in at home, you never have to go to the gas station at all,” said Don Anair of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “It’s not an either-or proposition. It’s a both-and proposition.”

Typically, California is out ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to environmental concerns about automobiles. It wants 1.5 million zero emissions vehicles on its roads by 2025 and it is mandating that 15% of all new cars sold by then be zero emissions. Because the car market in California is the largest in the US, it is the tail that wags the dog. No manufacturer can afford to be excluded from selling cars in California because it is not in compliance with state regulations. At present, 40% of all the zero emissions vehicles in America are registered in the Golden State.

The biggest problem for battery and fuel cell vehicles alike is infrastructure. Dan Poppe has invested over $1,000,000 dollars of  his own money to build three of the 11 hydrogen refueling stations in California. He needs 30 or more customers a day to break even at each facility but is averaging only 15-20 at present. “In 2004, we were told we’d have 10,000 cars on the road [in California] by 2009 — but it was more like 200 cars,” says Poppe, “Today, we still only have about 250. That’s not going to do it.”

The cost of building hydrogen refueling stations across America will be huge. Automakers and station owners have little incentive to invest without government subsidies to develop cars and stations. “Without government support, this is not a viable business,” Poppe said. Add in the roughly $70,000 proposed purchase price of fuel cell vehicles and an awful lot of taxpayer dollars are going to have to get spent to bring hydrogen powered cars into the mainstream.

But some think the talk of high costs is overstated. “We could put in a nationwide network of [hydrogen] stations for less than the cost of building the Alaska pipeline,” said Charlie Freese, head of the fuel cell vehicle program for GM. “There are a lot of other hidden costs too, like the cost of keeping the [Strait] of Hormuz open.” When was the last time you heard a spokesman for a major car maker acknowledge that a good part of our defense budget goes to keeping the oil flowing from dangerous parts of the world?

No analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of battery versus hydrogen power is complete without figuring in the costs of a worldwide mobile society. Children in China wear gas masks to school because the air around them is unfit to breathe. Polar ice caps are melting, ocean temperatures are increasing and sea levels are rising. Drought and famine are expanding across Africa. If we do not figure out how to live in harmony with our planet, there may not be any customers left to buy new cars, even ones powered by moonbeams or pixie dust.

So who is right? My old Irish grandmother would say Toyota, with its smug attitude toward battery electric cars, is being too clever by half.

Source: LA Times

Steve Hanley

Closely following the transition from internal combustion to electricity. Whether it's cars, trucks, ships, or airplanes, sustainability is the key. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.