The fuel cell powertrain consists of four elements:
1. A tank that stores hydrogen.
2. A fuel cell stack that converts hydrogen and oxygen into heat and water, creating electricity.
3. Lithium ion batteries that store the electricity.
4. A power unit that controls the flow of electricity to the electric motors that propel the vehicle.
Unlike a battery-powered vehicle that can take six, seven, eight hours to recharge, a hydrogen refill takes about 3 1/2 minutes. Also, while a battery-powered vehicle has a range of about 100 miles depending on conditions, Honda's Clarity, a mid-sized sedan, can travel about 240 miles on hydrogen. GM expects 300 miles for its fuel cell car.
As part of a Honda test fleet, 20 consumers in California have been leasing the Clarity since 2008, paying $600 per month. The company plans to introduce a fuel cell vehicle in 2018.
Honda is also testing a solar-powered unit that creates hydrogen by electrolyzing water. It could be used at homes and businesses.
Automakers have been able to reduce the fuel cell's size by as much as 50 percent, compared with cells they were testing a few years ago.
They also have reduced the cost of "some of the highest-cost parts -- things like the platinum, which is the catalyst," Freese says.
For example, the fuel cell in GM's Project Driveway test fleet uses 80 grams of platinum. The fuel cell planned for production in 2015 will use about 26 grams.
Says Freese: "We have a road map that will take us down to less than 10 grams."
Here's the bottom line: The price of an ounce of platinum on Tuesday, June 8, was $1,524. There are 28.35 grams in an ounce, meaning that the cost of 1 gram of platinum is $53.76. So 80 grams of platinum would cost $4,300.80; 26 grams, $1,397.76; and 10 grams, $537.60.
Automakers are targeting 2015 production because the durability of the fuel cells has been better than expected.
When GM started Project Driveway in late 2007, the expectation was 30,000 miles for each vehicle in the test fleet. With ongoing modifications, that increased to 80,000 miles.
But the major hindrance to selling fuel cell vehicles remains the lack of a hydrogen infrastructure.
Says Reinert: "You hope that the governments of the world would all get together and work collectively to make this all happen."