Don't count out hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles

Perhaps somewhat lost in all the exciting news about recent successful launches of all the new plug-in electric vehicles are the recent equally promising developments on the other electric vehicle: hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles.

Three press events at the Los Angeles and Tokyo auto shows underscored that we should certainly not rule out hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the low-carbon technology of the future for the automotive sector. The unveiling of Hyundai’s Tucson Fuel Cell, Honda’s FCEV Concept, and Toyota’s FCV Concept ushered in what Hyundai America CEO John Krafcik referred to as “a new era” for these “second generation electric vehicles.”

These glamorous show cars reiterate these three companies’ leadership in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The hundreds of vehicles they’ve announced for 2014 will step up to thousands in 2015 and tens of thousands in 2016, and so on, to get us underway toward a decades-long transition in to electric-drive. I can’t speak to how the Tokyo Toyota announcement was received, but the Honda and Hyundai in Los Angeles established strong buzz and excited conversations among the press and reps from competing companies.

What allowed for these new fuel cell milestones by the automakers? The companies mentioned how the packaging of the fuel cell system had greatly improved in this latest generation (the third or fourth for these companies) so that the system fits in the engine compartment. And the storage more neatly fits in the trunk area and provides a 300-mile range per fuel up. They also each mentioned how technology cost and durability had greatly improved and continue to improve. Finally, a key was infrastructure and public readiness. The commitments of public funding for long-term hydrogen fueling infrastructure investment, along with consumer incentives, have provided the certainty that companies needed to make their own major commitments to step up to the next level in manufacturing the vehicles.

Honda fuel cell electric vehicle

Honda Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle Concept, available 2015.

It’s worth noting that the two Los Angeles fuel cell cars are very different. The Hyundai Tucson is a right now car – it is virtually the same look as the conventional Tucson, and there are already a few similar ones in Europe as the ix35. The Honda concept hints at their next iteration of their Fuel Cell (see today’s Honda FCX Clarity) and is far more futuristic. This shows an interesting debate playing out among automakers: Make advanced electric vehicles look and feel exactly the same, or make them really stand out? (You be the judge).

And here’s the “wow” factor. The Hyundai fuel cell model, available in spring 2014, is being offered at very attractive terms: $2999 down, $499/month payment, all the hydrogen fuel is paid for by Hyundai, you’ll get valet at-your-service maintenance, and you’ll get the $2500 California rebate. Also, the vehicle will be available in Enterprise rental fleets to get more people experiencing the new technology. So, in this early deployment phase, Hyundai is doing everything possible to break down potential consumer barriers.

Of course the show had lots of other plug-in battery electric vehicles too, from nearly every automaker. But the industry representatives all made it clear that there is room for both electric vehicle types – those that plug-in and store electricity and those that make electricity on-board from hydrogen. Each electric type is likely to fit various vehicle classes and varied consumer demands in the auto market. And the “competition” between the two electric vehicle technologies will be fun to watch and eventually be very good for the planet. In fact, the two electric technologies not only can coexist and thrive over the long-term, but many of their under-the-hood technology developments—like batteries and power electronics—are common and synergistic.

Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell, available spring 2014.

California’s 100 hydrogen stations offer the greatest global down-payment to date on a future hydrogen economy. But there are also important efforts in South Korea, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Japan to help shepherd in a new fleet of hydrogen-powered fuel cell electric vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles have been “on the horizon” for a while. These early efforts by governments and automakers are bringing them into closer view.

So hats off to all the good works of the leading fuel cell developers—for looking a couple steps ahead on technology and for looking out for society’s long-term climate solutions. And hats off to the policymakers in California who keep working with the companies to help accelerate the transition to electric drive. And good luck to the eager early adopters seeking to elbow in on those first few thousand fuel cell vehicles.