Somewhat unexpectedly, fuel cell cars were in the spotlight in November, with Toyota and Honda each unveiling their fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) in Tokyo and several FCVs displayed at the Los Angeles Auto Show. The media responses ranged from skeptical interest to disbelief that FCVs will ever become a reality. So let’s look at what happened and what it says about where FCVs are going.
The biggest announcement was Toyota’s presentation of the Mirai, a four-seat fuel cell coupe that will be available to Japanese consumers in early 2015 and later in the year in the United States. Although Hyundai is first to market with a production fuel cell car, Toyota generates the most excitement, mainly because the company is assigned almost magical powers to create a market for new clean technology thanks to its launch of, and continued dominance of, the hybrid vehicle market. Toyota is clearly swimming against the tide on zero emissions technology by going with fuel cells instead of batteries, and the company’s moves attract attention.
5 Minutes or Less
Toyota’s announcements were the most positive of the recent announcements. I’ve said before that two remaining hurdles for the fuel cell car market come down to cost (of the car) and infrastructure, as the technology has largely been proven. Toyota demonstrated this with the Mirai, which will have a 300-mile range and will refuel in under 5 minutes. While Audi has said it is going the plug-in hybrid fuel cell route because a pure fuel cell car would be underpowered at just 130 horsepower (hp), the Mirai will have 153 hp, in line with Toyota’s conventional vehicle lineup. Toyota announced that the sticker price for the Mirai in the United States will be around $57,000. When tax credits are added in, the price will drop below $50,000. That’s still a high-priced car, but at this price point, it’s at least competitive with the high end of battery vehicles.
Toyota also said that it will support infrastructure investment in the northeastern United States. The company is already investing in hydrogen station deployment in California through California hydrogen infrastructure startup FirstElement. While this move can be seen as simply supporting the introduction of zero emissions vehicles (ZEVs) in the Northeast states that have adopted the ZEV mandate, it’s the first sign of real progress on U.S. infrastructure buildout outside of California.
Full Speed Ahead, Slowly
Honda’s news was more mixed. Honda unveiled a five-seater fuel cell concept car – a positive step in showing that FCVs won’t have to start small like battery vehicles did. In addition, Honda joined Toyota in supporting FirstElement in California through a letter of intent to invest $13.8 million. But the company took a step back by announcing that it would not release its first commercial FCV offering until 2016. Moreover, Honda’s president, Takanobu Ito, said that his vision was of FCVs in significant numbers on the road in 30 years.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show, other OEMs that have largely stayed out of the fuel cell development path had concept vehicles on display. The Volkswagen Group showed a hydrogen Golf and a plug-in A7 e-tron for Audi; both are still concepts, so this looks more like hedging against future need for a FCV once Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai have tested the waters.
So progress continues on the two major challenges for FCVs, but it continues to be slow. The price points are the most positive development, and may leave hydrogen infrastructure as the final obstacle for fuel cell cars.
Tags: Alternative Fuel Vehicles, Automotive Industry, Clean Transportation, Fuel cell vehicles, Smart Transportation Program
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