Dude, where’s my Hydrogen car?

Posted on 5 Jan 2015 by Tim Brown
Toyota representatives officially flipped the on switch at the opening of the first-of-its-kind stationary hydrogen fuel cell at the Toyota campus in Torrance, Calif.
Toyota representatives officially flipped the on switch at the opening of the first-of-its-kind stationary hydrogen fuel cell at the Toyota campus in Torrance, Calif.

The age of the 'conventional' gasoline internal combustion engine has been predicted to be coming to an end in just two years, according to Navigant Research, but when will hydrogen cars and the infrastructure needed to deploy them actually be ready?

In its report Automotive Fuel Efficiency Technologies, Navigant Research predicts that by 2017 ‘conventional gasoline-powered vehicles’ will represent less than half of the new automobile market worldwide.

Multiple factors, including increasingly strict global standards to limit carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, are driving manufacturers to produce more efficient vehicles.  Although the use of alternative fuels including hydrogen and electric power is expected to continue growing, gasoline is anticipated to remain the leading fuel in the coming years, albeit in unconventional vehicles that employ a range of fuel-efficiency technologies, such as smaller engines and turbocharging.

“There is no single technology that will dominate fuel efficiency improvements over the forecast period through 2025,” said David Alexander, senior research analyst with Navigant Research.  “The focus, instead, will be on incremental improvements in engines and transmissions, along with weight reduction in as many places as possible.”

Perhaps the most important innovation, according to the report, is the wide adoption of stop-start vehicles (SSVs), which eliminate idling when the vehicle is stopped and restart the engine when the driver moves from brake to accelerator.  Over time, the SSV is likely to add functionality to become more of a mild hybrid, with the ability to capture and reuse kinetic energy without the expense of a large battery.  Navigant Research expects sales of gasoline and diesel SSVs to reach 63m annually by 2025, representing 58 percent of all vehicles sold in that year.

But with big players such as Toyota Motor’s president Akio Toyoda throwing his considerable weight and support behind the hydrogen car as “the first step towards a hydrogen society”, and other OEMs including BMW, Honda, GM, Hyundai and others already producing hydrogen fuel cell cars, the hold up on availability of the necessary infrastructure seems almost intentionally defeatist.

However, for hydrogen to become mainstream, it would require an investment in transport infrastructure not seen since the Romans. The distribution of hydrogen fuel for vehicles throughout the US would require new hydrogen stations that would cost, by some estimates approximately $20bn and up to $4.6bn in the EU. Other estimates place the cost much higher topping out at close to $500bn in the US alone.

F-35 has carried out its latest weapons test
The F-35 fighter jet is estimated to have cost $1.5tr to develop.

But considering the F-35 fighter jet has cost the US military and therefore tax payers $1.5tr, even at the top end of the cost spectrum. the required expenditure on hydrogen infrastructure pales in comparison.

But of course, infrastructure isn’t the only issue. Hydrogen fuel cells are relatively expensive to produce, as their designs require rare substances such as platinum as a catalyst. 

The US Department of Energy (DOE) estimated in 2002 that the cost of a fuel cell for an automobile (assuming high-volume manufacturing) was approximately $275/kW, which translated into each vehicle costing an estimated $100,000 dollars.

The 2016 Toyota Mirai - image courtesy of Toyota
The 2016 Toyota Mirai – image courtesy of Toyota

But like with the infrastructure issue, the additional cost seems only a relatively small hurdle. By 2010, the DOE estimated the cost of hydrogen cars had fallen 80% and that automobile fuel cells might be manufactured for $51/kW, assuming high-volume manufacturing cost savings.

The Department of Energy wrote: “Hydrogen fuel cells for cars have never been manufactured at large scale, in part because of the prohibitive price tag. But the DOE estimates that the cost of producing fuel cells is falling fast”.

In 2014, Toyota said it would sell its Toyota Mirai in Japan for less than $70,000 by April 2015 and that it has brought the cost of the fuel cell system down to 5% of the fuel cell prototypes of the last decade. Despite the price drop, the former European Parliament President, Pat Cox, estimates that Toyota will still initially lose about $100,000 on each Mirai sold. But with mass-production savings and likely updated sales modes similar to Rolls-Royce’s power by the hour model likely to be introduced, the figures are starting to stack up.

The question is, now that the automotive OEMs have taken the plunge, when will the politicians, investors and planners start to give hydrogen the attention and funding it deserves?