At the Los Angeles Auto Show this week, Honda unveiled the FCEV Concept, a futuristic-looking car it says "will feature the world's first application of a fuel-cell powertrain packaged completely in the engine room of the vehicle, allowing for efficiencies in cabin space."
Although fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) are rare today, they may have what it takes to be very popular one day.
The benefits of FCEV
FCEVs run on hydrogen gas and oxygen, which an onboard fuel cell stack converts, via a chemical reaction, into electricity.
This version of the electric car offers the same performance and environmental benefits of battery-powered EVs (BEV), as well as the range of conventional cars, as it can be refueled on the go. What's more, the electricity is generated in the car, so a major downside of BEVs — that the power stored in the battery runs out, often rather quickly — is not an issue.
With the proper infrastructure of hydrogen refueling stations (which could be incorporated into present gas stations), FCEVs would have the same "unlimited" range as cars with internal combustion engines.
That means no range anxiety and no long battery charging times, Jack Nerad, executive editorial director and market analyst at Kelley Blue Book, told Business Insider.
No carbon dioxide is pumped into the atmosphere, no noise is made, and the motor delivers better torque than most engine-powered cars, which translates to great acceleration.
The only emission from FCEVs is water vapor, which is a greenhouse gas, but, Nerad says, "not generally regarded as bad as carbon dioxide."
But the technology is vastly underdeveloped and faces serious challenges that could keep it off the roads and out of your driveway for decades to come.
The problems with FCEV
The first hurdle is the actual production of hydrogen.
Pure hydrogen can be industrially derived, but it takes energy. If that energy does not come from renewable sources, then fuel-cell cars are not as clean as they seem.
Meanwhile, Jack Nerad of KBB said, "it's still easy to poke holes in the ground," to extract oil and natural gas. "It's cheap to do that, we know how to do that."
Another challenge is the lack of infrastructure. Gas stations need to invest in the ability to refuel hydrogen tanks before FCEVs become practical, and it's unlikely many will do that while there are so few customers on the road today.
"We're in a chicken-egg situation," according to Nerad.
Compounding the lack of infrastructure is the high cost of the technology. Fuel cells are "still very, very expensive," even compared to battery-powered EVs, Nerad said — and BEVs cost a lot more than internal combustion engine-powered cars.
The last major challenge is that few potential customers have any idea what FCEVs are. The Electric Drive Transportation Association promotes the technology as "part of a suite of electrification technologies," Cullen said, which includes improving awareness of their importance and existence.
For fuel-cell electrics, "we're right at the beginning of that process," she said.
The next step for FCEV
Although relatively few people are aware of fuel cell technology, there are FCEVs on the road today.
Many are parts of bus fleets in Europe, said Genevieve Cullen, vice-president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA).
For now, such "fleets are the optimal application" for FCEVs, Cullen told Business Insider. They follow set routes, so few refueling stations are required. The large number of vehicles creates the economies of scale that justify the cost of building those stations.
There are also well-known automakers working on the technology. Ford, Daimler AG (which owns Mercedes-Benz and Smart), and Renault-Nissan announced a partnership in January to speed up the development of commercially viable FCEVs with the jointly-created Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC).
Greg Frenette of the AFCC said the group is working towards serious, large-scale commercialization of a fuel-cell vehicle by 2017 or 2018, a timeline he called "cautious."
Aston Martin became the first automaker to put a hydrogen fuel cell-powered car on the Nurburgring, the famed German circuit. The Hybrid Hydrogen Rapide S, which can also run on gasoline, will race at the ADAC Zurich 24 Hours of Nurburgring in May.
Honda is the furthest ahead: It actually made an FCEV, the FCX Clarity, available for lease in 2008, but the project did not lead to widespread sales.
In September, Honda CEO Takanobu Ito said they would introduce a fuel-cell electric vehicle to go on sale in 2015.
Still, many people close to the technology argue large-scale commercialization "might be decades away," Nerad told Business Insider.
Ford, Daimler AG, and Nissan partnered up on FCEVs as "a serious effort to cover themselves," Nerad said. It's a way to "at least keep their hand in the game," in case the technology goes mainstream.
For hydrogen-powered cars to become completely viable, the process of making hydrogen must become easier and cheaper, without commensurate gains for battery-powered electric cars. Until then, the FCEV may forever be just around the corner.
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