Toyota threw in its lot with the alternative vehicle crowd when it predicted that gasoline and diesel engines will be virtually extinct by 2050. Kiyotaka Ise, senior managing officer of the world’s best-selling automaker, said that gas-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids, fuel-cell vehicles and electric cars will account for most of its auto sales by mid-century.
Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles might be the cars of the future. In fact, to recycle an old joke (because here at Fuel Freedom we’re big on recycling), FCVs might forever be the cars of the future.
In his State of the Union address on Jan. 28, 2003, President George W. Bush proposed $1.2 billion in research funding so that America “can lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles.”
“With a new national commitment,” the president added, “our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom, so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free.”
That child, now an adolescent, still has another 4 and a half years before obtaining a driver’s license, so that dream of his or her first car being hydrogen-powered is well within reach. After almost a decade of talk and promises, the first hydrogen cars are now making it from the drawing boards into showrooms.
Hyundai was first out of the box last spring with the introduction of the hydrogen fuel-cell Tucson. The company now claims to have 71 cars on the road, all of them in California. But it will be soon joined by Toyota, which is treating the introduction of its Mirai (the word means “future” in Japanese) like the arrival of a new baby. Only 3,000 are to be sold during the first year, only in California, and potential buyers are being screened like 3-year-olds applying to an exclusive preschool. “To buy Toyota’s new hydrogen car you’ll need to pass an interview,” read one headline. Deliveries will start in October.
“We’re looking for the bold and the few,” Toyota says on its marketing video, making ownership sound like joining the Marines. Potential buyers are being vetted very seriously to make sure they are prepared for the challenges and not just seeking novelty. And there will be challenges: The car will only be sold at eight dealerships in California. The $57,000 car has a driving range of 320 miles, putting it right next to gasoline engines and well ahead of the 200-mile range of electric vehicles. Its 67 miles-per-gallon puts it in a class by itself. Refueling takes no longer than an ordinary gasoline car. BMW, Honda and Mercedes will also have entries in the next few years.
But refueling stations will be few and far between. There are only eight in the state right now, with 48 more in development, according to this locator operated by the California Fuel Cell Partnership. Toyota has pledged to build more, including a bunch in Connecticut, but that is still far in the future. “Marketing this car is the reverse of selling,” says Mike Sullivan of Toyota Santa Monica, one of the exclusive outlets. “We’re going to turn people down if this car isn’t for you.”
Hydrogen cars run on fuel cells, which are entirely different from the combustion process. The hydrogen is fed into a “polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM),” which separates the molecule’s electron from its proton. The proton passes through the membrane, but the electron is routed around it in a way that creates an electric current. The electron is then reunited with the proton on the opposite side, where it joins oxygen from the air to produce the fuel cell’s only “exhaust” — water vapor. No carbon dioxide is emitted during the process.
The process is ideal for replacing traditional auto exhausts from the combustion process. The only trick is producing the hydrogen, which does not exist freely in nature. Most hydrogen is now being derived from natural gas (methane), although that process produces carbon dioxide. (Toyota shows that livestock manure is one source of the hydrogen that can power the Mirai.) Various experiments have been tried in producing hydrogen from food wastes and other organic materials, but the carbon dioxide remains. The other method is splitting the water molecule through electrolysis, but this is very energy-intensive and expensive. (Fuel cells are often described as reversing electrolysis.)
Although fuel cells have been slow in coming in the automotive sector, they have been making rapid progress in other uses. A good portion of the nation’s forklifts now run on hydrogen, since it is relatively easy to keep a refueling station on-site. A company called Plug Power in upstate New York has had success in selling fuel cells as backup power in businesses and residences. And Bloom Energy, a California company, has made a business of selling fuel cell systems — the “Bloom Box” — to power data centers.
Setting up a network of fueling stations around California and the rest of the country may prove to be more of a challenge, however. A story in Green Car Reports last month said complaints are mounting among hydrogen car owners that even the few refueling stations around California are not working properly. “The stations are frequently inoperative, drivers say, closed for days or weeks at a time,” wrote reporter John Voelcker. “Moreover, even when the stations are functioning properly, there is often an hour-long wait after the first one or two cars – and some stations can only fuel cars to half-full.”
An entire Facebook group of disappointed owners has emerged, and the caustic comments are abundant. “The expectations that were being portrayed — 15 stations being up by the end of 2014 — fell woefully short,” wrote one Hyundai Tucson owner. “There are eight so-called active consumer stations, with three currently working. I would say my wife and I are HUGELY disappointed as we firmly believe in this technology. … But if someone does not plant a huge boot in the behind of the people who are in control of delivering the fueling infrastructure, this will be an epic fail.”
This will be the problem that Toyota and the others will be facing as they prepare to enter the hydrogen race.
More William Tucker posts about alternative vehicles:
- Toyota, California go for hydrogen
- U.S. is trailing the rest of the world on EVs
- Tesla continues to walk the tightrope
- Audi tries synthesizing fuel
- Is this golf cart more disruptive than Teslas?
California, the home of Elon Musk and his Tesla venture, is about to embark on another technological initiative as well — a car driven entirely by hydrogen.
In late February Toyota began producing and selling the Mirai (the name means “future”), a hydrogen-powered vehicle that will be available in Tokyo this year and go on sale in the U.S. in December. Always conscious of its history and ready to make amends, Toyota made the announcement five years to the day after it testified before Congress about a sudden accelerator problem that caused the company a great deal of embarrassment and led to a recall. “Every Feb. 24, we at Toyota take the opportunity to reflect on the recall crisis, doing everything we can to ensure its lessons do not fade from memory,” company CEO Akio Toyoda said. “For us, that date marks a new start.”
To say that Toyota is being cautious in entering the hydrogen car market would be an understatement. The Mirai won’t even be mass-produced but is being hand-crafted by Japanese workers who are turning out three cars per day. The model will sell for $57,000 in Tokyo and is not designed to take off like a rocket. The company only plans to sell 2,000 individual models in Japan this year. “The Mirai program, especially once all the research and development costs are factored in, is clearly unprofitable at this point, and even selling a few thousand units at $57,500 each is not going to turn the tide,” the Motley Fool’s Alexander MacLennan wrote. “But the Mirai is not about short-term profits; it’s about long-term market advantage through brand acceptance and technological development resulting in better vehicles.” Even Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got into the act, saying we are headed into a “hydrogen era.”
Right now Toyota’s main rival as an alternative to gasoline will be Elon Musk’s all-electric Tesla Model 3. Musk is not taking the challenge lightly. He has called the hydrogen car “an extremely silly idea” and mocked its fuel cells as “fool cells.”
But Musk might have reason to worry. The Mirai will offer drivers a range of 300 miles and take only three minutes to fill its tank. Tesla’s Model 3, due out in 2017, will offer only a 265-mile range and consume 40 minutes to offer an 80 percent recharge of its batteries. (Ideally, EVs should be recharged overnight.) Of course, the big test will be the availability of refueling stations, and here electric vehicles have a big head start. Tesla already has 393 Supercharging stations nationwide and is building them out as fast as possible.
There are only a dozen hydrogen stations now, all of them in California, as a result of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “hydrogen highway” initiative of 2004. But California has seized the gauntlet again and is promising to spend another $20 million in building out the Hydrogen Highway with 28 new stations in the next few years. The Mirai will be initially aimed exclusively at California and its requirements for zero-pollution vehicles, then try to expand to the East Coast as well. Hyundai’s hydrogen-powered Tucson is already being sold in California.
Where Toyota and Tesla have found agreement is in opening up their patents to rivals to try to promote the technology. Musk famously made his EV patents available last year, and now Toyota is doing the same with its hydrogen research. The obvious aim is to get other manufacturers involved in order to increase the demand for fuel outlets. “We think this is a different way to look at the market and collaborate and hopefully with this get a lot more people coming into the game,” Nihar Patel, Toyota’s vice president of North American business strategy, told Forbes.
Still, the switch to hydrogen vehicles has some challenges ahead. Musk’s main criticism — echoed by many others — is that hydrogen fuel is too difficult to handle and transport. Hydrogen is, after all, the smallest molecule and leaks through everything. One of its biggest critics is Joseph Romm, who worked in the Clinton administration promoting the technology and finally became so disillusioned that he wrote a book critical of the technology called The Hype About Hydrogen. Romm is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress and heads the Climate Progress blog. Another problem with hydrogen, of course, is that it is not available as a free resource but must be manufactured from other resources, principally natural gas. This, of course, requires costs and energy.
Still, hydrogen vehicles have the advantage of producing no air pollution (its exhaust is water vapor) and will be able to reduce the release of carbon into the atmosphere, since the CO2 is easily captured in the reforming process. Overall, hydrogen is likely to be a big plus for the environment.
It also offers car buyers what may be the most important factor in reducing our foreign oil dependence — free choice. It hardly matters if electric vehicles prove to be more popular than hydrogen vehicles or vice versa. The important thing is that they will both be available as alternatives to gasoline-powered cars. They could also open up the door to other alternative fuels: compressed natural gas, E85, and the dark horse of them all, methanol manufactured from natural gas. All these alternatives cannot help but make a dent in our current dependence on foreign oil.
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.
“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)