Automakers Try New PR Spin to Bring Hydrogen Cars Back from the Almost Dead

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The world’s on-again, off-again commitment to commercialize the hydrogen car appears to be on again, with the announcement this week by eight major automakers that they anticipate "a few hundred thousand" of them on the world’s roads by 2015.

At the same time, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said it will no longer attempt to kill federal funding for hydrogen car technology. 

The auto companies – Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault-Nissan and Toyota – declared they’ll work together to bring the costly car and its fueling stations to mass market, in a new Letter of Understanding.

"We will bring costs to a competitive level, prepare large-scale production and of course continue to work on the technology," said Daimler AG (DAI) Chief Executive Dieter Zetsche in a follow-up statement.

Interestingly, the auto giants gave their Letter of Understanding this title: Automobile Manufacturers Stick Up for Electric Vehicles with Fuel Cell. The fact that they’re feeling compelled to "stick up" for hydrogen speaks volumes about the technology’s current unpopularity. And note the absence of the word "hydrogen." Analysts certainly have.

That omission – and the use of "electric cars with fuel cells" in its place – suggests an attempt by automakers to spin hydrogen in a way that taps into the soaring approval of battery-powered electric cars. But they’ll need more than clever public relations to get the hydrogen car moving.

Hydrogen advances would require support from major governments (money and otherwise) – if not a technological miracle.

The technical hurdles remaining are huge. Developers still haven’t figured out how to transport hydrogen across long distances; how to establish an infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations; and how to reduce production costs to anywhere near affordable.

Case in point is Honda’s FCX Clarity. It costs a few hundred thousand dollars to make each one. Currently, there are just 10 on road in the U.S. and in Japan.

For its part, the Department of Energy under U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, appears to be losing patience with hydrogen’s potential. In the last eight years, the U.S. has spent about $1.5 billion on developing hydrogen fuel cells. But the DOE cut $100 million from the proposed hydrogen budget for 2010, leaving only $68 million for non-vehicle fuel cell research. It wants to focus on more realistic technologies to curb oil use like biofuels and electric vehicles.

Secretary Chu explained further in May:

"We asked ourselves, ‘Is it likely in the next 10 or 15, 20 years that we will convert to a hydrogen car economy?’ The answer, we felt, was ‘no.’"

To the DOE’s dismay, the House and Senate restored the slashed hydrogen funds in the fiscal 2010 spending bills. And Secretary Chu is now saying he will no longer put up a fight, although the agency will do its best to ensure the millions get wisely spent.

Given the acrimony surrounding H2 cars in America, it seems that a "hydrogen highway" would have a better shot at taking root elsewhere. Which is why the carmakers want to start in Germany.

"The signing manufacturers strongly support the idea of building-up a hydrogen infrastructure in Europe, with Germany as regional starting point and at the same time developing similar concepts for the market penetration of hydrogen infrastructure in other regions of the world, including the USA, Japan and Korea as further starting points," the Letter of Understanding states.

The world’s automakers are clearly united on hydrogen. And Germany seems a good fit for the pilot. German carmakers have invested much time and money in the technology. The nation has 30 hydrogen fueling stations operating throughout the country, the most in the EU Hydrogen Highway system.

But even in Germany, the government has begun to pour substantial sums into battery-electric cars, about $705 million through 2012, to be exact. With those funds, the nation is aiming to boost electric vehicle production from 2,000 units produced today to 1 million by 2020 and 5 million by 2030.

It’s getting hard not to conclude that the electric car has the more certain future in a post-petroleum economy.


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