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Hydrogen Cars Are Popular Again, Even If Hydrogen Filling Stations Aren't

Can anything beat oil?
November 25, 2013, 9:00pm
Hyundai's fuel cell Tuscon SUV may end up being the most popular fuel cell car on the roads—relatively speaking, that is. Via Hyundai

Can anything beat oil? That's the question facing car makers, who are dealing with higher fuel mileage standards and a whole lot of drivers who want greener cars. Following last weekend's LA Auto Show, it looks like hydrogen fuel cells are making a comeback. But can the promise of futuristic fuel be enough to overcome the mighty grip oil has on our roads?

A trio of automakers have signaled that they're ready to make a move. At the LA Auto Show this last weekend, Hyundai announced plans to lease a hydrogen fuel cell-powered version of its Tuscon crossover for $499 a month (following a $2999 down payment), which includes fuel and maintenance for the life of the three year contract. It's an ambitious plan: While Honda has leased a handful pilot models of its FCX Clarity sedan, a hydrogen fuel cell car has never seemed more accessible.


That's not all: Also at the LA show, Honda unveiled a rather futuristic looking FCEV hydrogen concept, and announced it will have a commercial hydrogen model ready by 2015. Toyota followed suit with its own concept sedan, called the FCV, and also announced plans for a 2015 launch. So is this a sign that fuel cells are actually coming? That they're ready for the spotlight of eco-friendly early adopters, much as hybrids were some 15 years ago?

Toyota and Honda, who led the hybrid charge with their Prius and Insight compacts, obviously think so, as does Hyundai. But don't get too excited yet. As Automotive News notes, the US side of the pilot projects will be limited to Southern California, which has around 10 hydrogen fueling stations. It's not a perfect comparison, but 2008 Census data show that Los Angeles County has more than 1700 gas stations. In other words, hydrogen cars are limited in use because they're no place to fill them up; of course, there's no place to fill them up because there's no cars to fill up.

Honda's FCEV concept looks awesome, but it'll be tough to drive if you can't find one of a handful of hydrogen stations. Via Honda

It's this chicken-egg scenario that, in many areas, has kept petroleum at the top by virtue of its own popularity. Combine that with the fact that hydrogen fuel cells remain a pretty expensive option, especially considering they don't have the advantages of scale that petrol engines do, and the fact that most hydrogen production is still powered by natural gas, an energy conversion that adds costs and inefficiency. Whip it all together and you've got an idea why alternatives are so slow in coming.

It's the same story for other gas alternatives. Ethanol, once pitched as the renewable fuel to end all renewables, has fallen out of favor as the EPA realizes that committing food and farm resources to making fuel is pretty wasteful in its own right. Electric vehicles are getting more popular, but remain hampered by the fact that batteries are expensive and take longer to charge than a gas tank takes to fill. All offer positives as well, but when our entire infrastructure is based on one type of fuel, it's hard to make the switch.

What will it take? Fuel cells are in a weird place, because they require a major shift in infrastructure. Hybrids have caught on because they've got a reputation for being green, which is still a valuable marketing tool. But they also don't require compromise, as they still run on good old dino juice. Electric vehicles still have range concerns, but you can also charge them at home or anywhere else with an outlet. At the end of the day, it's not too hard to wire a charging station either.

But the average Joe isn't going to store hydrogen at home, just as most folks don't have a gas station at home. At the same time, a commercial network isn't going to appear without demand. And without that network, it's really hard to sell cars.

If hydrogen is to succeed, it'll likely come down to automakers and governments working together to encourage development of filling infrastructure. For example, a mix of private and public interests in Japan have plans to complete 100 hydrogen filling stations by 2015, which is start. But if hydrogen cars are ever to make a huge dent in the market, it's going to be a long ways off. Until then, expect petroleum—along with a growing sector of electric vehicles—to rule the roads.