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

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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.

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

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