Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

New Generation of Hype

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, January 28, 2013 --  

Fuel cell vehicles make great props for auto shows. Until fundamental problems are solved, that's the only place they belong.

When Toyota unveiled a new hydrogen concept car at the Tokyo Motor Show last November, it was a coming out party for a troubled technology.1 The car came to America for Consumer Electronics Show, and is now on display before Washington bigwigs at this city's auto show.

Widely touted as the next big thing a decade ago, hydrogen fuel cell cars all but disappeared from public discussion after stubborn problems just couldn't be solved. Chief among these was cost. The first production vehicles cost around a million dollars each.2

No surprise then, that fuel cells quickly dropped off the map. Toyota achieved success with its Prius gasoline/electric hybrid, inspiring other companies to make plug-in electric models. These plug-ins have been commercial failures. Last summer, General Motors was forced to cut the sticker price of its Chevy Volt by $5,000 to move unsold inventory, despite a $7,500 consumer tax credit in America.3 Plug-in sales remain less than one percent of the U.S. market, and show no signs of breaking out.4

Toyota never built such a car. If favors tanks of hydrogen pumped into a fuel cell to make electricity that drives the car's motor. Toyota says it plans to launch a commercial fuel cell vehicle in Japan in 2015 and in the U.S. a year later.

Will consumers want them?

The main advantage of fuel cells over plug-ins is range. The Nissan Leaf can only drive around 30 miles on a single charge, and recharging takes several hours. The Chevy Volt has to fall back to a secondary gasoline engine to go further. Fuel cell vehicles, by contrast, have a range of hundreds of miles, and can be re-fueled in a time similar to a gasoline car.

Cost, however, is another story. Hydrogen vehicles are notoriously expensive, largely because of the platinum (over $1000 per ounce) needed to make the fuel cell. Toyota claims it has reduced the price of production by 95 percent since its first prototype — although they don't say how much the prototype cost (tens of millions? More than that?) And they claim they will sell their first production model for $50,000 to $100,000.5

Unfortunately, even that price is a deal breaker for most consumers. Consider that the high cost of the Lithium batteries in plug-in electric cars has held back sales of those models, even though they are far less expensive than fuel cells. The poor-selling Chevy Volt lists for only $34,9956 — double the price of a conventional Chevy Cruze at $17,270.7 If people won't pay a $17,500 premium for a more eco-friendly model, why on earth would they pay a $33,000-83,000 premium for one that is based on hydrogen?

Fatal as it is, price is not the only problem with fuel cell vehicles. The next biggest problem is that hydrogen isn't so green. Currently, all commercially available hydrogen in the United States is converted from natural gas — a process that releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

What happens when deep-pocketed environmental enthusiasts find out about this? Think they'll be heading off to the Toyota dealership to pay an extra $33,000+ for a car that causes carbon dioxide levels to rise? Not likely.

Fuel cell advocates respond that there are greener ways to get hydrogen. It's possible to capture the carbon during conversion from natural gas and permanently store it somewhere. It's also possible to use electrolysis of water to make hydrogen. This sounds great in theory, but neither of these techniques have been shown to be economical or practical at commercial scale. The popular image of windmills and solar panels producing clean hydrogen fuel isn't science fiction — it's pure fantasy.

Of course, similar criticism can be made of the carbon dioxide released by power plants that provide power to plug-in cars connected to the electrical grid. Driving either type of car puts additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Figuring out which is better means a complex series of equations based on a complex series of assumptions and a large number of changing market conditions. The science on which automotive fuel source is most efficient -- for minimizing either carbon emissions or energy usage -- is nowhere near settled.

The simple truth is that manufacturers are bringing these vehicle to market prematurely due to government mandates. Mandating that a percentage of vehicles have zero emissions is an easy way for a politician to look green. It doesn't matter if consumers don't want them, and it matters even less that are plenty of hidden emissions behind the scenes. Much has changed in the decade since the first fuel cell vehicles hit the road. They empty hype over fuel cells, however, remains stubbornly unchanged.

Related Web Columns:

Symbol of the Impossible, June 30, 2009

Who Will Kill the SUV? August 8, 2006


1. International Business Times, 2013 Tokyo Motor Show: Toyota Unveils More Complete Version Of Its Hydrogen Car, But Nissan Chief Carlos Ghosn Is Not Impressed, November 20, 2013

2. Automotive News, Toyota 2015 Fuel Cell Vehicle to Cost Between $50,000 and $100,000, April 30, 2013

3. Automotive News, Decoding the Volt's Price Cut, August 12, 2013

4. Ibid.

5. Technology Review, How Toyota Will Be First With a Fuel-Cell Car, November 15, 2013

6. Automotive News, Ibid.

7. Chevrolet, Cruze Compact Car, as posted January 2014