Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Steal the Spotlight but how do they Compare to Traditional EVs?

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the rage at this year's LA Auto Show, but how do they stack up to traditional electric and hybrid vehicles? This 107 year old show is one of the most influential and best attended auto shows in the world, it runs from November 21-30, 2014. This year hydrogen fuel cell powered cars appear to have stolen the alternative vehicle spotlight from hybrids and fully electrics.

Hydrogen vehicles are quiet, they have no emissions and they are more than twice as fuel-efficient as conventionally powered vehicles.

Hydrogen vehicles have performed well in a seven-year US Department of Energy demonstration project released in 2012. In 2003 the DOE established the following targets for hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles: A 250-mile driving range, 2,000-hour fuel cell durability and $3 per gallon gasoline equivalent for hydrogen production cost.

Hydrogen fuel cells advantages over traditional EVs include the fact that they can be refilled faster and they have greater range. Hydrogen powered vehicles can be refueled in as little as three minutes and they can have up to a 400 mile driving range. Typically EV batteries can take hours to charge and they provide a range of less than 100 miles per charge.

However, hydrogen vehicles have been slow off the mark and they are still at the very early stages of deployment. It is only very recently that automakers are moving beyond prototypes and into production vehicles.

While Honda has been working on fuel cell technology for many years, at the LA Auto Show, Toyota appears to have captivated people's attention with their production ready Mirai mid-sized sedan. It will go on sale in the US in late 2015 (and sooner in Japan). Honda, Audi, Hyundai, and Volkswagen also showed their hydrogen concept cars at the show or they announced plans for real production vehicles within the next couple of years.

One of the major concerns for the immediate future of fuel cell vehicles is the lack supporting infrastructure. While most EVs can refuel at any 110 volt electrical outlet, hydrogen cars require special refueling centers. Currently there are only nine hydrogen-filling stations in the state of California and by the end of 2016 there will only be 48 locations in the state where the public can refuel their hydrogen vehicles. Europe is ahead of the US in terms of hydrogen fuel cell refueling stations, but not by much. In April of this year a number of automakers announced that they were deploying hydrogen vehicles and more refueling stations. These stations will be located in London, one in Aarhus and in Odense, Denmark, and one in Innsbruck, Austria as well as other locations in Sweden, Germany and Italy. They are expected to be operational by 2015.

Even if there are some advantages of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles over plug in or hybrid electric vehicles, there are legitimate questions about demand. There really is no pent-up demand for hydrogen and EVs are already well established as is the infrastructure that supports them. In this environment it may be hard for hydrogen vehicles to catch up any time soon.

Given the investment from the auto industry we can expect that hydrogen will play an ever increasing role. However, it is safe to say that for the next few years that role may be marginal. Fuel cell vehicles are still immature, and they still have a long way to go to catch up to traditional EVs and hybrids.

Pike Research estimates that there were 3,442 fuel cell vehicles shipped in 2013 and most of these were deployed through agreements with fleets and tested in public trials. fuel cell buses may see just over 300 units sold by 2030. Cost remains a factor as hydrogen powered buses cost about $2 million compared to around $325,000 for diesel buses.

It is expected that we will see the hydrogen fuel cell auto industry grow to a $1.8 billion market in 2030. According to a Lux Research report titled The Great Compression: the Future of the Hydrogen Economy, passenger cars and forklifts will drive this growth. This research forecasts that 63,000 fuel cell passenger vehicles will be sold globally in 2030. There are already millions of EVs and hybrids being driven today, Toyota alone has 7 million hybrids on the world's roads.

The emphasis on hydrogen vehicles at the LA Auto Show may be designed to command attention and foster interest in a brand. Like flashy sports cars displayed on showroom floors, they draw people in only to have them buy much more conventional vehicles.

The popularity of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles at the LA Auto Show may be more about the marketing cache they bring and less about the likelihood that they will soon be the dominant alternative to combustion engines. 

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