Toyota is the world’s most successful car company. The Prius is the most popular gas-electric hybrid ever, with 3 million sold in 80 countries worldwide. Toyota can be said to have pioneered the first vehicle that has challenged the traditional internal combustion engine.
So why is the Japanese giant now moving away from hybrids and placing its bets on the hydrogen fuel cell?
It’s a tough question. Not many analysts can see the sense of it. Elon Musk dismisses the whole idea as “fool cells” and says it can’t succeed. Yet, Toyota maintains that there are inherent advantages in the technology that will eventually emerge. Most of all, the decision by Toyota, Honda and Hyundai to go with hydrogen instead of electric vehicles has set off a fierce debate on which technology — if either — represents the better route to replacing the internal combustion engine.
It is not as if this is a snap decision for Toyota. In 1992, the company set up two task forces — one to investigate the gas-electric hybrid and one to pursue the hydrogen vehicle. In 1997 the Japanese giant introduced the Prius, which has gone on to become one of the most successful models of all time. But work never stopped on the fuel cell project. Now, as company officials reportedly believe hybrid technology may have reached the point of diminishing returns, they feel it is time to move on to something new. “Of all the advanced power train systems we have in our portfolio,” Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter told Green Car Reports, “we see hydrogen fuel cells as being the no-compromise, primary-option vehicle for the next 100 years.”
All this is happening, of course, at the moment when Tesla seems to be proving that electric vehicles can go head-to-head with gas-powered cars. So the question is, what does Toyota see in hydrogen that can’t be achieved by following up with electrics?
Range is one answer. Toyota is still convinced that electric vehicles will never get beyond the 150-200-mile range that most EVs now achieve — although Tesla is already pushing toward 300. The new Toyota Fuel Cell Vehicle (FCV) that will go on sale in California next summer will have a range of 300 miles, with hopes of future improvement.
Even more important than range is refueling time. A fuel-cell vehicle can fill up at a hydrogen pump in ten minutes — still significantly longer than gasoline — but an EV takes from four to six hours. Even the new “superchargers” that Musk is installing around the country take 20 minutes to give a half-charge. But Musk is also working on a battery-pack replacement that would be faster than a gasoline fill-up.
Of course all this is predicated on having “filling stations” available, and on that score, hydrogen is even further behind. There are only 60 such facilities in the entire country. Tesla just announced its 100th supercharging station in April and that’s just a small part of the action. Most EV owners recharge at home and the electric grid is everywhere. Providing hydrogen around the country would require a whole new infrastructure.
Joseph Romm, who once promoted hydrogen cars as Assistant Secretary of Energy under Bill Clinton and later wrote the book, “The Hype About Hydrogen,” remains one of the fiercest critics of the technology. “Hydrogen is the smallest molecule and escapes almost any container,” he wrote in his blog, ThinkProgress. “It makes metals brittle. It is almost impossible to transport. These are physical barriers that will be very difficult to overcome.”
Another surprising aspect of hydrogen is that it is not particularly cheap. Unlike EVs, ethanol or methanol made from natural gas, hydrogen does not offer consumers any financial incentive. At the J.P. Morgan Auto Conference in New York last week, Senior Vice President Carter admitted that a full tank of hydrogen needed to carry the driver 300 miles will cost $50, slightly higher than ordinary gasoline. By contrast, the owner of a Prius only pays $21 for the same trip, and the owner of a Tesla Model S would pay $9.60 at off-peak rates. It’s hard to see how there is going to be any appeal to consumers.
Now it must be admitted that much of the fierce debate taking place on the Internet concerning fuel cells vs. EVs revolves around reducing carbon emissions rather than freeing ourselves from foreign oil. EV advocates imagine a grid running on wind and solar energy while H2 partisans envision windmills and solar collectors turning out prodigious amounts of hydrogen. Other environmental critics have argued that without a larger component of non-fossil-fuel sources generating the electricity, converting to electric vehicles will do nothing to reduce carbon emissions, although some people disagree with all this.
It sometimes seems as if we are trying to accomplish too many things at once. Putting more FCVs and EVs on the road would definitely move us toward energy independence. The source of the hydrogen or electricity can be sorted out later, and the same goes for methanol and ethanol as a liquid substitute for gasoline. These fuels might originally come from natural gas, but renewable sources such as landfill gas and manure piles could be substituted later.
The important thing is to keep moving forward on all fronts. No one knows when some vast new battery improvement or an entirely different method of extracting hydrogen may prove to be a game-changer. Toyota is doing this by pursuing the fuel cell vehicle — even though for the present the odds seem slightly stacked against it.
“Toyota FCV-R Concept WAS 2012 0629″ by Mariordo – Mario Roberto Durán Ortiz – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.