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Fuel Cell Vehicles Coming Off the Bench? Maybe. Maybe Not.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Fuel cell vehicles are back in the news this week with the announcement of a new innovation partnership. According to the three auto-manufacturing heavyweights involved – Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan – this new collaborative partnership approach will allow the industry to bring fuel cell vehicles to driveways around the world.  All in the next 5 years.

But, before these vehicles will be found at dealerships near you, these three autogiants have some major challenges to overcome including:

  • Cost.
  • Reliability.
  • A lack of fuel infrastructure….
  • (the list continues)

Historically, these barriers – in particular, the infrastructure challenge – have thwarted the industry’s best efforts to propel hydrogen vehicles into a competitive position as the alternative fuel vehicle that can significantly reduce the fleet’s reliance on oil.

But, the automaking trio says that this time is different.By examining and understanding the lessons-learned in past efforts to create a competitive fuel-cell vehicle, these companies believe that they will overcome the hurdles that previously bested them.

In an article published by Wired Magazine, Damon Lavrinc reports that:

Each automaker will throw the same amount of funding into the project to create a vehicle the consortium claims will be “affordable” and designed for the “mass market.” The cars could be available as early as 2017. Each vehicle will use the same core components, but will be built on platforms unique to each automaker, allowing for different body styles, interior configurations and branding.

But, the author’s skepticism of this optimistic view on the future of fuel cell vehicles is evident when he goes on to state that:

“…this is hardly the first time an automaker has claimed to solve the puzzle. Toyota has promised to have a fuel-cell vehicle on the road by 2015. General Motors has been pimping the technology for awhile. But it’s always been hampered by the development of infrastructure, even if there are big-rigs and even airplanes using hydrogen. Still, there is a skyrocketing number of patents that deal with the technology, so it’s not like the technology has been abandoned.”

Bottom line – Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan might be able to overcome the cost and reliability problems previously found with fuel cell vehicles. Their engineering know-how and innovative spirit has certainly led to impressive accomplishments in the past. But, if they want to see their new designs out on the road, they need to also focus on infrastructure.

Photo Credit:

1. Photo of Nissan fuel cell vehicle by DVS1mn and used under this Creative Commons license.

2. Photo of fuel cell vehicle near Sacramento, California, USA by Robert Couse-Baker and used under this Creative Commons License.

Melissa C. Lott About the Author: An engineer and researcher who works at the intersection of energy, environment, technology, and policy. Follow on Twitter @mclott.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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  1. 1. priddseren 10:10 pm 01/30/2013

    Really their goal should just be to ensure standardization of what ever the source of the hydrogen is and its distribution so from the start it is consistent. That is about all. This limits the patent and reduces the number of patents that need to be freely available. There is no way they will get anywhere if they try to lock down the concept of hydrogen fuel or how it is distributed. This is the problem Henry Ford contested over a century ago, patenting the concept of an automobile effectively stifled it until ford cam along and challenged the idea that something as generic as automobile could be patented. Lets avoid that nonsense this time around or fuel cells will never get anywhere.

    The other big problem is these cars so far are just not up to the expectations of the buying public. Tiny little ugly shaped cars that barely hold two people and a happy meal are useless for 90% of the population. People have more than 2 in the family, groceries need to be a week not a day and it helps to be able to drive 300 miles or so.
    Then we get to the larger vehicles. Hauling your ATVs, pulling the camper or having 6 kids all need horsepower and size, something none of the alternative fuel automakers have figured out. So far all they have managed is tiny small almost useless cars or buses, trucks and vans, all of which are too large for the typical driver.

    I am all for dumping the combustible fuel powered vehicle in favor of better but the expected and desired uses of the vehicle needs to be met.

    Link to this
  2. 2. methos1999 9:29 am 01/31/2013

    Apparently you didn’t see the first picture – it’s a Toyota Highlander, which is an SUV the next size bigger than the Rav-4. Similarly, GM has used the Equinox as their test vehicle. So your statements about these vehicles having only enough space for 2 people makes no sense. I mean really, it’s one thing to not really read the article or do independent research to qualify your statements, it’s another thing altogether to not even look at a couple pictures and go straight to the comments!

    Link to this
  3. 3. bucketofsquid 1:09 pm 02/7/2013

    Last I checked it is expensive to separate hydrogen out and it burns more energy than it produces. Has that changed? Have we reached the point where the hydrogen separation process produces more power than it consumes so it could be completely converted to run solely on hydrogen and still produce excess hydrogen?

    Petroleum currently has a net gain that is quite substantial even after subtracting out the pumping and refining costs. How does hydrogen compare?

    Link to this

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