Why Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Are Taking Off

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Mercedes' F-Cell hydrogen car could be replaced with a "next generation" SUV or crossover-based car in 2017. . (Photo: Mercedes-Benz)

The news hasn't been great for electric vehicle and hybrid sales lately. Although sales have slumped recently, suddenly we’re seeing a whole lot of action from hydrogen-powered fuel-cell cars. This is a zero emission technology that’s been under the radar, but is exploding in 2015, with available-now or soon-arriving cars from Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai.

Think of a fuel-cell car as an exhaust-free electric car with a little chemical factory producing the electrons in place of a battery. Hydrogen is the fuel (although the industry refers to call it an “energy carrier”), and range is an excellent 300 miles or better. The other advantage over battery cars is that refueling is just like getting gas, and takes only about five minutes. The concept has been around for centuries (the fuel cell was invented by a British barrister in the 19th century), but it took decades of research to whittle costs down to the point where a practical, market car was possible. We’re there now.

A Toyota Mirai refuels in southern California.
A Toyota Mirai refuels at the pump in southern California. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Hyundai was the first out of the gate with the Tucson fuel-cell car last spring. Initially it’s available only in southern California because that’s where the stations are. The big challenge for hydrogen is the infrastructure—the stations cost $1 million or more, and right now there’s a robust network only in the Los Angeles area, though an additional 19 are in the planning stages in California. And Toyota is subsidizing a dozen stations in the Northeast. Connecticut recently announced that it would offer $450,000 in subsidies for two hydrogen stations in that state, though for some reason they’re restricted to within 10 miles of Hartford.

BMW eDrive fuel-cell car
The BMW eDrive 5-Series fuel-cell car was developed with Toyota. There's a hydrogen version of the i8, too. (Photo: BMW)

Toyota’s Mirai hits dealerships in California this fall, with the East Coast also in the plans later. Toyota just announced some stellar numbers for the car — a range of 312 miles on a hydrogen fill, and an estimated 67 mpg equivalent. Here's the Mirai on video, via Consumer Reports:

Toyota is preparing a big push on fuel-cell cars. “Just as the Prius introduced hybrid-electric vehicles to millions of customers nearly 20 years ago, the Mirai is now poised to usher in a new era of efficient hydrogen transportation,” said Jim Lenz, CEO of Toyota North America.

Toyota is also working with BMW, previously mostly quiet on fuel cells — though it showed an early interest in hydrogen with 7-Series cars that burned the stuff. BMW said this week it will test a Toyota-enhanced fuel-cell car on public roads in July.

Hyundai Tucson fuel-cell car
The Hyundai Tucson was the first fuel-cell car on the U.S. market, last year, but it already has plenty of competition. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

BMW showed a 5-Series “Gran Turismo” with a fuel cell (and a range of 310 miles) at a race track in France, and plans a “technically mature, customer-ready vehicle sometime after 2020.” Germany has one of the better hydrogen networks globally, with 18 stations and plans for 50. Daimler and partners recently opened a station on the autobahn, a first for Germany. Mercedes, meanwhile, is being fairly quiet about its plans, but one executive said the automaker would field what could turn out to be an SUV- or crossover-based car in 2017. With the recent F-Cell and other experimental models through a long history, Daimler has been a leader in the field.

But wait, there’s more! Three Japanese automakers, Toyota, Honda and Nissan (until recently a dark horse player in the field) said July 1 that they will band together to pay as much as one-third of the operating costs of Japan’s hydrogen network, and pledged up to $50 million (as much as $90,000 per station). The Japanese hydrogen market could grow to an $815 million business by 2020, analysts said. The government has already subsidized home and office fuel cells.

Honda FCV Concept
Honda's FCV Concept, shown at the Detroit Auto Show, will soon be followed by the production version. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)

Honda will be a big player in fuel cells, and showed off the FCV Concept car at the Detroit Auto Show back in January. It plans to have the production version of that car on American roads next year.

So there’s a lot of news, and an invigorated sector that is finally going from the planning stages to the showroom floor.