Automakers Now Ditching Fuel Cell Vehicles For Battery Electrics?

There’s been a low-grade battle for the future of zero-emission vehicles in California. On one side are the well-known battery electric models, with companies like Tesla capturing the global imagination and state residents buying hundreds of thousands of vehicles to date.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle.

On the other side are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, capturing the imagination of…well, maybe a hundred buyers and a few state officials.

The problem is that the state is spending millions of dollars to subsidize both technologies, when many experts feel that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will have very little role in the state’s transportation future.

Now Fred Lambert at Electrek observes that even the fuel-cell automakers are changing their tune:

I think we are witnessing the start of a new (but long overdue) trend this year. The few established automakers still pushing fuel cell hydrogen vehicles appear to be warming up to battery-powered electric vehicles instead. Honda, Toyota and Hyundai, arguably the automakers most stuck on hydrogen, all announced new electric vehicle programs in the past few weeks.

Toyota is working on a plug-in version of the Corolla. Hyundai is bringing its Ioniq electric platform to market by the end of the year and this morning, we reported on the Korea-based automaker developing a next generation battery-powered electric SUV.

Those two automakers are arguably the most entrenched in fuel cell technology with the Toyota Mirai, the Hyundai Tuscon Fuel Cell, and billions spent in investments between the two of them, but the most telling news is that Honda, another fuel cell believer, is planning to launch a battery-powered version of the Clarity, a car it actually developed for its fuel cell program.

Lambert notes the gaping inefficiencies of fuel-cell vehicles compared to battery electrics (which are almost three times more efficient, when accounting for the energy in versus the energy out), plus the greater complexity of the manufacturing/fuel supply process with fuel cells.

The only advantage hydrogen offers over battery electrics is refueling time. But as batteries eventually move to up to the 600-mile range in the coming decades, and as fast-charging technology improves, this benefit will diminish. Meanwhile, battery electrics have the contrary advantage of being able to fuel in your home and anywhere with an outlet, versus the need for the gas station model of hydrogen fueling.

To my mind, the only true benefit of hydrogen is for long-haul trucking (although biodiesel and other biofuels may be just as well-suited), and possibly as a form of energy storage, assuming the hydrogen is made from surplus renewables.

But I’m skeptical that automakers will truly abandon their fuel cell plans so quickly. My guess is it will be another five years or more before they truly get the message from the market.


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