'Full Speed Ahead'
Automakers are sticking to plans for 2014-16 fuel cell rollouts
LOS ANGELES -- Toyota recently said it was scaling back production plans for an electric minicar because the technology didn't meet customers' needs. But the automaker still plans to offer another kind of electric vehicle to consumers -- a hydrogen fuel cell car.
"We are still full speed ahead," says Craig Scott, manager of the advanced technologies group at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. "We announced 2015" as the launch date, he said, "and we are sticking to that. We don't anticipate any delays."
Automakers may be ambivalent about some EV technology, but they have steadfastly supported hydrogen fuel cell vehicle development. Honda, General Motors, Daimler and Hyundai also plan to launch fuel cell models in 2014-16. The technology is ready, they say. Lack of a fueling infrastructure is the biggest hurdle to success.
Charlie Freese: A big hurdle
"We still don't have that starting point infrastructure we would need to see for fuel cell introduction," says Charlie Freese, GM executive director of global fuel cell activities.
GM has funded fuel cell vehicle development for more than a decade and says fuel cell vehicles are almost ready for commercialization. But Freese doesn't see a long-term plan to build a large network of fueling stations. Without that, committing to volume production is tough.
"The issue is going to be, you can't pull back on infrastructure when you turn the production switch on," he said.
California plans to build at least a limited hydrogen fueling infrastructure -- if the funding is there.
In July, the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a collaboration of automakers, energy provi-ders, government organizations and fuel cell technology companies, released "A California Road Map: Bringing Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles to the Golden State."
Craig Scott: “No compromise”
It puts at 68 the number of hydrogen stations needed to get the fuel cell vehicle market rolling in California. The report says those stations should be operating by 2016 in five communities where early adopters are likely to live.
"That's enough to make automakers feel comfortable selling the cars," says Tim Brown, technology manager of the Sustainable Transportation Department at the University of California at Irvine's Advanced Power and Energy Program. Brown and his team are the architects of the "Road Map."
The cars are ready, he says.
"We are now at the point where if something doesn't happen in 2015 it rests wholly on the shoulders of infrastructure," Brown says.
The stations will cost an estimated $65 million to build, the report says. But funding is uncertain. It may come from a California law that allocates $100 million each year to fund clean vehicle and equipment projects.
A proposed California regulation called the Clean Fuels Outlet may force fuel producers to build hydrogen stations when there are 20,000 fuel cell cars on the road in California.
Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, admits it is hard to know how fast the fuel cell vehicle market will grow.
"We don't know how many cars people are going to buy, so the automakers don't like to give estimates because it really depends on the market," she says.
The number of fuel cell vehicles on the road today is negligible.
A study by the California Energy Commission forecasts 53,000 fuel cell vehicles in California by 2017. Pike Research forecasts around 54,000 fuel cell vehicles in all of North America by 2020. That assumes a compounded annual growth rate of 41 percent from 2015 to 2020, says Lisa Jerram, a senior research analyst at Pike. The technology is mature, she says, but "the automakers are still testing what will be their first generation commercial models."
Honda is gaining confidence that the fueling infrastructure will be there when it launches a new version of its Clarity fuel cell vehicle in 2015, says Steve Ellis, manager of fuel cell marketing at American Honda Motor Co. Launched in 2008, the Clarity was one of the first commercial fuel cell vehicles. Only about two dozen are leased to consumers today. A lessee must live close to a hydrogen station.
"We know what we can do on the vehicle side," Ellis says. "We need certainty on what will happen on the refueling infrastructure side."
That doesn't make fuel cell vehicles less appealing in the long term. GM's Freese says: "Your 300 miles or more of range on a single fill with a refill time of three minutes or less" meets consumer demands for a convenient emission-free vehicle. And unlike battery-powered EVs, fuel cell technology can be adapted to any size vehicle without a loss of efficiency.
Those features give fuel cell vehicles an edge over battery-powered EVs, which are expensive and still not practical, says Toyota's Scott. With fuel cells, "there is no compromise from a gas car. From a practical point of view, it makes all the sense in the world."
|5 automakers plan retail sales of fuel cell vehicles for 2014-16, but timing is tied to availability of fueling stations.|
|Expected start of retail sales||Expected start of retail sales|
|Toyota||2015||GM||2015 or 2016|