Cleantech Market Intelligence
Fuel Cell Vehicles: Not Dead Yet
In spite of many efforts to declare fuel cell cars dead, top automakers are moving ahead with plans to produce commercial fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). That was one of the key messages from the World Hydrogen Energy Conference, held last month in Toronto.
Granted, it’s not surprising that a group of people willing to spend time and money to get together and talk about hydrogen are, in fact, bullish on hydrogen. But from the automakers’ media panel, where representatives from Daimler, Toyota and Honda sat for a long Q&A with the press, and from the hydrogen plenary and a panel on hydrogen market demand that I participated in, it’s clear that companies are still committed to this effort even though there are real hurdles in the way.
The automakers once again stated their commitment to releasing commercial FCVs roughly in the 2015 timeframe. Some are more specific than others. Honda’s Steve Ellis said the Japanese maker has not announced a hard date, but the company is working on a full model change from its current offering, the FCX Clarity. Daimler reiterated that it will have a next generation FCV on the road in the 2014/2015 timeframe, and Toyota gave 2015 as its target.
Even though they have been talking up this timeframe for a couple of years, to be honest, I was half expecting the manufacturers to start walking back their dates, since enthusiasm for FCVs in some parts of the world has waned. But they did not. What has been pushed back is the timeframe for large-scale uptake, which OEMs are now saying likely won’t happen until close to 2020.
Daimler’s Christian Mohrdieck said his company plans to get the price of the fuel cell drivetrains down to around that of a diesel hybrid, through volume production and some materials cost reduction. Here I think he is talking about platinum, and it would behoove the platinum industry to think about making that happen. I don’t think Mohrdieck was including the cost of hydrogen tanks in this estimate, in which case you have to bump up the FCV price further. Hitting a competitive price point is still a concern for OEMs, from what I see.
It’s clear that hydrogen infrastructure is still a thorny issue. The three OEM representatives at the conference were unanimous that they should not have to foot the bill for infrastructure buildout. Even though Daimler has partnered with Linde to build 20 stations in Germany, Mohrdieck referred to this a “triggering” signal of the company’s intent to produce cars that can use hydrogen fuel. Toyota also noted that it’s partnering with energy and gas companies in Japan to build stations, which will be placed in the same regions where Priuses are popular.
From my conversations with hydrogen companies, it is clear that they’re enthusiastic about the potential market from fuel cells. While they’ve been involved in building infrastructure, especially in terms of materials handling but also with early passenger cars and buses, the fact remains that distributed vehicle fuelling is not their traditional business. Eventually retail gas station operators must step in if the FCV market is to become viable. This is happening in Germany, where Total Germany is part of a new initiative to build 50 stations by 2015.
No one doubts the major obstacles ahead. But the OEMs are spending a lot, in terms of money and reputation, to forge ahead with fuel cell cars.