Hydrogen-powered cars steal some sex appeal in Detroit

Visitors to the North American International Auto Show in Detroit this week likely were awe-struck, along with critics, at the sight of the new high-powered Acura NSX and the Ford GT.

But this might be the show where hydrogen-powered vehicles finally graduated from the drawing board to the public consciousness.

Much buzz was created in the Motor City when Honda unveiled its FCV (for fuel-cell vehicle) concept car, which is expected to go on sale in the United States in 2016. The car is an answer to Toyota’s Mirai FCV, which is expected to be available in the U.S. later this year (Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe became the first person in the world to get one last week.)

The cars join the Hyundai Tucson and the Mercedes F-Cell in the hydrogen ranks. Hyundai reportedly has decided to lower the price of its vehicle (said to be about $139,000) to increase its competitiveness with its rivals.

Cost could be a big issue with consumers: The Mirai costs about $62,000, roughly the same as the Honda FCV.

Refueling access is another issue: There are only 13 hydrogen stations in the U.S., 11 of them in California. But the state is investing more than $46 million to build 28 new stations.

FCVs combine hydrogen, from a tank or cell, with oxygen that powers an electric motor. The key benefit is the short refueling time: Honda said its FCV could be fueled in about 3 minutes (at about 10,00 pounds per square inch). The vehicle has a range of roughly 300 miles, an improvement over the 240 achieved by Honda’s first-generation fuel-cell vehicle, the FCX Clarity. The Mirai also has about a 300-mile range.

One person unimpressed with all the attention hydrogen-powered cars were getting in Detroit was Tesla founder Elon Musk. As MLive reported:

“I just think they’re extremely silly,” he told reporters at Automotive News’ annual World Congress.

Musk argued that hydrogen acts as an energy storage unit, not a source of it, making it impractical for powering vehicles. He called drawing hydrogen from water “an extremely inefficient” process.

“If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick,” Musk said.

Toyota is undaunted, saying it will share the 5,680 patents that went into its hydrogen fuel cells. Musk announced last year that Tesla would make its patents available to other carmakers.

Time reported:

“Hopefully by sharing these patents with others, these new fuel systems can be refined and improved,” said Toyota Senior Vice President Bob Carter, “to attract a larger market of buyers.”

The Mirai is starting with a small batch of 700 vehicles in 2014 with the goal of growing to tens of thousands by the 2020s. “We believe hydrogen electric will be the primary fuel for the next 100 years,” Carter said.

(Photo: Honda FCV, via Honda.com)

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