Mark Rechtin is Los Angeles bureau chief for Automotive News.
Then a funny thing happened. The time horizon never changed. Ten years ago, it was still seen as 20 years before we would all be whirring along in Jetson-mobiles. Five years ago, same story.
As recently as 2003, Tomoyuki Sugiyama, Honda's executive chief engineer for r&d, said: "It will be at least 20 years before conditions will be ready for individuals to own a fuel cell car and we can start mass production."
Most recently, in the June issue of the AIChE Journal, a publication of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, researchers said it likely will be "several decades" before hydrogen fuel cell cars will be feasible for mass production.
Of course, there are optimists.
In 1996, Daimler-Benz engineers said their advances in fuel cells meant that the technology could be widely used in passenger cars within 10 years. But at last month's Tokyo show, all Mercedes-Benz had to show for the past decade was yet another concept vehicle.
This year, Larry Burns, General Motors r&d vice president, maintained that GM will have fuel cell vehicles for sale by 2010. Then again, GM promised 1 million "full" hybrid gasoline-electric vehicles for sale by 2007. Credibility seems to be an issue here along with advanced r&d funding, what with all the gallons of red ink pouring out of GM's headquarters.
GM is not alone in the fuel cell spin zone. Every major automaker has created a gazillion-dollar prototype that wheezes to 80 mph and gets great fuel economy but has a limited range. I know. I've driven them. They're nice enough vehicles, great public relations gambits -- but I sure wouldn't want to live with one.
The true challenge is creating a fuel cell version that sacrifices nothing to today's cars in performance and packaging and outdoes them in equivalent fuel economy and emissions. Given the caning the Toyota Prius has received for its $3,000 premium, the fuel cell car can't produce sticker shock.
Is it possible to create a $30,000 fuel cell Toyota Sienna that scoots to 70 mph in 10 seconds, has a 300-mile range, meets crash-test standards and can be refueled without the driver having visions of the Hindenburg? It isn't likely to happen soon.
Then there is the obvious absence of any hydrogen-refueling infrastructure. Establishing a network of hydrogen service stations within two miles of 70 percent of the population would cost at least $10 billion, according to a recent GM study.
Masatami Takimoto, Toyota Motor Corp.'s executive vice president overseeing development of hybrid vehicles and fuel cells, also sees major obstacles ahead. Although he hopes current hybrid vehicles will be a bridge to fuel cells, "it won't happen by the early 2010s."
Still impeding fuel cells are the storage difficulties inherent in hydrogen gas, as well as the CO2 emissions created by off-site coal or natural gas production of hydrogen.
Those barriers will require a breakthrough, Takimoto says.
BMW boss Helmut Panke -- a physicist and nuclear engineer by education -- is pessimistic about fuel cell cars. He predicts it will be at least 20 years for mass-market acceptance of hydrogen fuel powering a traditional internal combustion engine, let alone fuel cells.
Honda Motor Co. CEO Takeo Fukui is more optimistic, forecasting a seven- or eight-year horizon for scientists to conquer the technology for a fuel cell vehicle. But he grows more cautious when asked about real-world marketing of such cars, as well as development of infrastructure.
Fuel cell vehicles are an admirable goal, a modern-era moonshot. What would be better for America than energy independence and negligible tailpipe emissions? More than a few Blue Staters say they would rather see $5 billion of their tax money spent shattering the fuel cell riddle than another month fighting to secure our petroleum future in Iraq.
Big oil won't help
Of course, it would help if the oil companies saw hydrogen in their future.
The most galling statement came from ExxonMobil. In the wake of its $10 billion profit in the third quarter, the oil company said it would not invest any funds toward developing alternative or renewable energy sources.
Unfortunately, over the past few years, only a couple of the major automakers are performing anywhere near as well as the oil companies. Automakers' r&d spending already is stretched thin.
In short, the auto industry needs help if the fuel cell revolution is to occur.
Until we dedicate appropriate resources to the venture, the fuel cell car will be as far away as the moon.
You may e-mail Mark Rechtin at [email protected]