After Decades Of Promises, Are Hydrogen Cars Really Any Closer?


Originally posted on CleanTechnica

Ever since the first Arab Oil Crisis sent gas prices skyrocketing in the early 1970s, automakers have paid platitudes to government officials and environmentalists demanding a cleaner alternative to petrol. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have long been touted as a replacement for petrol cars, and the chart below shows just how far back those promises go.

This chart comes from the Catalytic Engineering blog of Bruce Lin, an admitted fan of hydrogen fuel cell technology, but one who remembers the countless promises from automaker executives that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are right around the corner. It isn’t just automakers though; the Los Alamos National Laboratory released a report in 1980 that said that fuel cell vehicles would be “viable” for production around 1990 and, well, that didn’t happen. Before then though, GM had already released a hydrogen-powered concept van in 1966, though it shelved the technology when it proved too expensive for actual production.

Most automakers seemed to put hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the back burner until the mid 1990s, when California pressed car companies to build zero-emissions vehicles or face stiff fines. This led to the first generation of electric vehicles like GM’s EV-1 and the first-gen Toyota RAV4 EV, but automakers seemed more interested in selling a future powered by hydrogen. Way back in 1998, GM was predicting that up to 10% of its Opel-brand vehicles could be running hydrogen fuel cells in 2010.

hydrogen-fuel-cell-promisesDaimler was even bolder, predicting it would sell fuel cell vehicles within the first decade of the 21st century, and not just a smattering of vehicles. Back when Daimler was DaimlerChrysler, one executive predicted as many as 40,000 Mercedes-branded fuel cell vehicles on roads by 2004. That didn’t exactly work out as planned, and neither has Honda’s planned FCV, which has since been pushed back to a 2016 or 2017 rollout. Ironically, Honda is one of the few automakers to come close to meeting its own predictions, which suggested a production fuel cell vehicle wouldn’t make it to their dealers util 2018.

It’s not fair to just pick on Daimler and GM though. Ford, Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai have all made equally bold predictions, few of which have come anywhere close to true. As of today, there are just two production hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for sale; the Toyota Mirai, and the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, the latter of which has sold just 100 units in the past year. While demand for the Mirai has proven more robust than predicted, Toyota’s decidedly slow rollout of its fuel cell car is a greater edge to electric vehicles.

Failed predictions from automakers are nothing new, especially when it comes to hydrogen fuel cells. So just keep that in mind next time a suit from a major automaker tries to convince you that hydrogen, the “fuel of the future”, is just a few more years away from mass acceptance. That alibi don’t fly no more.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.