If you don’t know what a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) is, don’t worry, you’re not alone.
But you will. You might even be driving one some day.
So what is it and why should you care?
FCEVs run on hydrogen gas and oxygen, which an onboard fuel cell stack converts, via a chemical reaction, into electricity.
In simple terms, this automotive technology provides the best qualities of electric and conventional cars. It marries some of the best qualities of traditional gas burning cars and electric or hybrids.
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.
But the technology is vastly under-developed and faces serious challenges that could keep it off the roads and out of your driveway for decades to come.
Why you would buy one
In short, because you get “unlimited” range, there’s no engine noise. 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.”
Who’s paying attention
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 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.
BMW and Toyota are on the verge of finalising their own deal to work together.
Aston Martin just 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.
So if fuel-cell cars offer so many benefits, why can’t anyone walk into a dealership and buy one today?
Why you might never ge to buy one
While the technology is tantalising, it is far from serious commercialization, and faces real challenges.
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.
Driving into the future
Despite the challenges, several automakers are working on bringing the technology to the mass market, possibly within a few years. So the prospects of owning one aren’t entirely grim.
In September, Honda CEO Takanobu Ito said they would introduce a fuel-cell electric vehicle to go on sale in 2015.
Greg Frenette of the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC), created by the Ford, Daimler AG, and Renault-Nissan partnership, said the group is working towards serious, large-scale commercialization of a fuel-cell vehicle by 2017 or 2018, a timeline he called “cautious.”
But Jack Nerad told Business Insider many people close to the technology argue large-scale commercialization “might be decades away.”
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.
There are circumstances that could make hydrogen-powered cars completely viable. For instance, if the technology for battery-powered electric cars does not develop significantly, and if the process of making hydrogen becomes easier and cheaper, then the case will be much stronger for FCEVs.
If and until that happens, advocates will likely continue to promise the hydrogen-powered car is just around the corner, but won’t be able to deliver it onto your driveway.
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