VW Group is squarely focused on preparing for its onslaught of EV models; the first fully electric Audi is set to arrive in the U.S. in late 2018 as the e-tron Quattro midsize luxury crossover. A trio of more-affordable VW electric vehicles will start arriving in 2020 under the I.D. subbrand.
VW Group is also tending to the Electrify America subsidiary it created as part of its settlement with U.S. and California regulators over its diesel emissions violations. That outfit has pledged $2 billion over 10 years to build charging stations across the U.S. to sustain what it sees as the slow but inevitable arrival of mass EV adoption.
Only after these EV-centric efforts get moving will VW Group turn any meaningful attention to fuel cells. Keogh estimated that Audi would have "limited fleets" of hydrogen test vehicles on the road within five years; vehicles for consumer use wouldn't arrive until after that.
That would put Audi and parent VW years behind many of its rivals, including Honda, Toyota, Mercedes, Hyundai and General Motors. And unlike Honda and Toyota, which have worked with hydrogen fuel companies and providers — and the state of California — to build additional hydrogen stations, Audi has no such plans, Keogh said.
"Every time another manufacturer starts to lean more on EVs and throw more resources at them, it pushes the momentum more towards that solution," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.
Enthusiasm for consumer fuel cell vehicles is already fragile. Two of hydrogen's earliest proponents, Toyota and Hyundai, recently backed off their bullishness on the technology and started to focus more resources on battery-electric vehicles.
Honda, another early pioneer, remains steadfast in its belief in fuel cells; executives there say if battery EVs prove to be the future, Honda can switch to supplier-based systems with little trouble.
The VW approach is the opposite, hedging its bets on fuel cells but focusing on EVs.
"I'm sure [VW Group] thinks that at some point the technology and cost of fuel cells will all make sense in certain circumstances like commercial use, and they want to have a stake in that game when it does," Brauer said. "But everything you heard in Frankfurt was dead set on EVs as the near-term solution."