Welcome to the first installment in Hope for Hydrogen. In this series of articles and podcasts, veteran automotive journalist Nicolas Zart and I ask you to imagine a world void of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In this contrived intellectual exercise, pretend that the inevitable replacement for conventional gas-powered automobiles will be the venerable hydrogen fuel cell car.
I’ve written before about the religious war between battery electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. We’re at the cusp of the end of the 100+ year reign of gasoline-powered personal transportation. It has been driven, literally, by internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. No, these vibration-riddled, maintenance-prone, noisy, polluting vehicles won’t go away overnight; the shift will be gradual.
However, the switch has begun. In the next few years, the speed of the transition will only increase. Prices will precipitate. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will improve, offering greater driving range, lower cost, and certainly more convenience.
Replacing Two Billion Cars
Consider that there’s more than two billion ICE cars in the world today, and 100 million new gas guzzlers are sold each year globally (with nearly 17 million of these in the United States). Only then do we begin to understand that it will take a while to overcome not only social stigma about new transport tech, but simply replacing the installed base.
It is estimated that it would take 20 years to accomplish this, based solely on existing production and consumption numbers. And this is if we could magically snap our fingers and immediately eliminate sales of all ICE cars today. Obviously, we must take a long-term view of the situation.
As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?
This is an issue of no small contention within the ranks of experts and laypeople alike. We’re a culture of duality. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and your white or black hat gives you away. Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus atheists, and progressives versus conservatives split our creative and intellectual aspirations into competing cultural camps.
Typically, the respective fans of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles find it difficult or impossible to reconcile or respect one another. For many, there’s no room in the Venn diagram for an overlap. In fact, there’s no Venn diagram whatsoever (but, fortunately, no gasoline either). There are only two distinct and widely separated circles. While both feature zero emissions, neither is void of a carbon footprint somewhere in the “well-to-wheels” energy lifecycle.
Hope for Hydrogen Series
Enter this series, Hope for Hydrogen. Today our intellectual game will be to pretend that there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. We’re going to assume that “Supercharger,” “LEAF,” “lithium-ion,” and “Soul EV” are terms that never entered the lexicon. We’ll psych ourselves into believing that our vernaculars are free of phrases like “range anxiety,” “charge time,” and “CHAdeMO socket.”
Instead, assume the new kid on the block is hydrogen. Pretend, for just a few hundred words of text, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the clean car model that will be embraced by one and all (which could turn out to be the case; none of us has a crystal ball). This is, of course, what reputable corporate titans like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are telling us. Organizations such as the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership and the South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, among others, are touting the advantages of hydrogen over gasoline and aggressively advocating its use for personal transportation.
Family heir and Toyota Motors president Akio Toyoda has said that his company will migrate away from petrol-powered piston pumpers within a decade. “I do believe that [the] fuel cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car,” he told Businessweek last December. Even the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. He took delivery of Toyota’s first Mirai in a public ceremony in Tokyo in mid-January.
Thus, as a mental exercise, let’s embrace the mindset of hydrogen and explore its merits.
Excitement For a Better Car
I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ICE cars (with the exception of a few classics, like the Porsche 911, those gorgeous C2 Corvettes from the 1960s, and that Audi TT I owned a few years ago). The expense of gasoline and maintenance alone is enough to make me jump ship from internal combustion and the noise and pollution that it brings. One might as well just hitch a horse to a buggy and try to find a blacksmith. This is the 21st century, and old-school 19th and 20th century tech just won’t cut it. At least not where our wallets and the environment are concerned.
This being the case, many are excited about the availability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Toyota will begin selling its flagship FCV, the Mirai, in September. Hyundai has already begun a limited leasing program for its first hydrogen-powered car, the Tucson Fuel Cell. That’s right, all of us now have the ability to lease or purchase a space-age hydrogen car that emits zero polluting emissions and features a familiar driving range of 265 to 300 miles (just shy of what most ICE cars achieve; improvements to these first generation versions will obviously extend this freshman effort).
Lack of Fueling Stations
Well, not so fast. These groovy vehicles aren’t really available to all of us. In fact, not most of us. Why? Because we don’t live close enough to a hydrogen fueling station. According to PC World, Toyota won’t even sell you a Mirai if you don’t live within a “reasonable” distance of a hydrogen fueling station. The same is true of the new Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.
And here’s the rub, especially if you pride yourself in being an early adopter and want to put your money where your mouth is in terms of progressive transport tech: There’s currently only 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Nine of these 13, or 70%, are clustered around Los Angeles. The other four? One each in downtown San Francisco and downtown Sacramento, plus Wallingford, CT and another in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, that’s it.
If you look up hydrogen fuel cell cars on Wikipedia, it will indicate that there are more stations, like some in Dearborn, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. However, these either no longer exist, are private (like for corporate and commercial fleets), or are prototypes. In other words, you can’t drive up in your Mirai or Tucson, swipe your debit card, and fill your hydrogen tanks. As such, residents of cities like Portland, St. Louis, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth, Boston, and Indianapolis couldn’t even purchase a fuel cell car if they wanted to.
Creatures of Habit
Humans are creatures of habit. Thus, many will enjoy that FCVs offer the familiar experience of visiting a fueling station and standing next to their car for three or four minutes as they inject pressurized hydrogen into two or three tanks that reside under the back seat. Unfortunately, hydrogen fuel costs more than gasoline. In fact, the cost is about identical to pre-dip gasoline prices (think the first two-thirds of 2014).
Although both Toyota and Hyundai will be incentivizing new customers to purchase their fuel cell vehicles by offering free fuel for the first three years of ownership (including lessees), owners of other models—and Mirai owners after 36 months—will be paying roughly $50 to fill their cars with hydrogen (deriving about 300 miles of travel from the expense).
This is somewhat disappointing. Can’t we come up with a transport tech that would allow us not only more flexibility in filling stations, but also a lower fuel cost? No wonder people don’t like to give up their gas guzzlers or be early adopters. There may be savings in maintenance (no oil changes, tuneups, transmission work, or conventional exhaust repairs), but there clearly are not in terms of fuel costs. At least not currently.
Only the Beginning
However, let’s be fair. This is, after all, the genesis of a revolution in personal transportation. Passenger vehicles didn’t instantly overtake the horse and buggy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, didn’t spontaneously replace competing forms of transportation. Unlike today, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when the Model T was first introduced (there are now 121,000 in the United States, with nearly 10,000 in California alone).
To make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical, we need not only a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations, but also what pundits call “infrastructure.” By this, they mean not only the consumer-friendly stations at which people will swipe their card to fill their tank (and buy a soda or a pack of smokes), but also the production and distribution networks that produce (extract), pressurize, and transport hydrogen to these stations.
Lest this become a 4,000 word article, let’s consider only the fueling station side of the equation. You already know that there are paltry few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Basically, it’s currently practical to own an FCV only if you live in one of five areas in the U.S. (and, to be practical, mostly Los Angeles). It’s easily possible that you live 30-45 minutes from one of the stations in any of these regions. Personally, I have a gas station that’s two minutes from my front door. Anything less convenient or more challenging than their current situations will be perceived as a pain by most consumers.
But that’s just the here and now. What does the future look like? What is currently being done to alleviate the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure?
Find out in the next installment of Hope for Hydrogen….
Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:
You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related articles at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.