Hydrogen Cars Are Coming, but not Soon
In case you haven't heard, the car of the future will glide silently over the road, running on an odourless gas, pumping nothing from its tailpipe except water pure enough to drink. But surely you know that. The AUTO industry has been dangling this vision for almost two decades - cars propelled by HYDROGEN fuel cells, the technology most likely to break the world's twin addictions: oil and the internal combustion engine.
Since 1993, the prophets of the hydrogen economy have declared again and again that the technology already exists. Which left consumers to wonder, where's the car and why am I still pumping unleaded? Well, the world can stop wondering. After 13 years of teasing announcements and endless talk, the era of the hydrogen fuel cell has finally arrived ... sort of. Well, not exactly, but almost.
Yes, there are still some problems - let's call them "hurdles." But those can wait, because today, on a crystal-clear day in northern California, the Honda Motor Company has assembled members of the world press at the Laguna Seca racetrack to unveil the Honda FCX Concept car. In 2008, it will become Honda's first fuel-cell-driven vehicle to hit the market, albeit in limited numbers and at a cost that makes it still more of a science experiment than a real commercial enterprise. But the point of the gathering isn't to quibble, but to behold a feat of engineering. And what a feat it is.
The size of a standard family sedan, the FCX has the sleek, shark-like look common to so many concept cars - a look that designers call "distinctive," but which one writer compared to a suppository on wheels. It won't blow away speed demons (its top speed is just 160 km/h), but it accelerates to highway speeds as well as any four-cylinder sedan and has plenty of power for passing. The most jarring thing is the conspicuous lack of noise - the car emits just the faintest high-pitched hum as you zip along at 100 km/h. But once you get used to the sight and sound, there's not much else to say, which is exactly the point. "People keep telling us that the most remarkable thing about it is how unremarkable it is, and we consider that a compliment," says Stephen Ellis, a Honda marketing exec and resident fuel-cell expert.
Everything that's truly impressive about the FCX is in how it works, rather than what it does. And to fully appreciate how impressive, you have to know a little bit of history.
Contrary to popular misconception, hydrogen fuel cells are not a new technology. In 1889, chemists Ludwig Mond and Charles Langer built the first device using oxygen and coal gas to produce power and water through a chemical reaction. But fuel cells were weak and fragile and complicated to make, and by the end of the 1800s it was clear that the internal combustion engine - that gas-chugging, smoke-belching scourge - was set to revolutionize every industry in the world.
Fuel-cell enthusiasts were confined to obscure laboratories and promptly forgotten. And in those laboratories, over the next hundred years, scientists kept finding ways to make fuel cells more powerful and more stable. In the 1960s, the U.S. space agency NASA invested heavily in fuel-cell technology to replace bulky batteries on space missions, and in the 1970s soaring oil prices reinvigorated the world of fuel-cell research.
One of the companies that grew out of that research boom was Vancouver's Ballard Power Systems, one of the pioneers of the modern push to commercialize the fuel cell. In 1993, Ballard and Daimler-Benz unveiled the first fuel-cell powered bus, and by 2005 there were about 30 operating worldwide, mostly in Europe. Over the past decade, 10 different automakers designed more than 125 different hydrogen vehicle models, most of them running on Ballard fuel cells. It seemed the hydrogen economy was dawning. But no.
The vehicles never went into production because they were all underpowered compared to what a typical Western driver had come to expect. They couldn't travel more than 150 km before refuelling. They wouldn't start in the deep cold of winter, nor in the peak heat of a southwest summer.
But engineers at Honda and elsewhere kept working, and the FCX is very much the result of their slow but steady progress. In the newest model, the fuel cell is 135 kg lighter and less than half the size of the 1999 model, but produces 67 per cent more power. The lithium battery, which assists the fuel cell when accelerating, is now 40 per cent lighter and 43 per cent smaller. The same goes for the new engine - smaller and lighter but more powerful. The car's average range before refuelling has gone from 255 km to 440 km, and the company promises easy starts in winter and summer.
All that is sure to be music to the ears of a public more interested than ever in finding an environmentally responsible ride. This year, another raft of gas/electric hybrids will hit the market. General Motors is building 100 Chevy Equinox SUVs with fuel-cell engines, and BMW has rolled out a hybrid gasoline/hydrogen version of its 7-Series luxury sedan. The hit of the recent Detroit auto show was the Chevrolet Volt, a concept car that marries a battery-powered electric engine to a gas-powered generator. Green transportation is hot, and over the next few years, almost every major manufacturer is expected to dip into the world of hydrogen cars. Which brings us to the "hurdles."
Anyone who's ever seen the famous archival footage of the fiery 1937 destruction of the Zeppelin Hindenburg doesn't need any explanation of the public's trepidation about using hydrogen as a mass-market fuel. Of course, consumers have gotten accustomed to the idea of pumping highly flammable gasoline into a tank that is little more than a large soup can. But hydrogen still conjures fears of fireballs and instant death. The engineers working on fuel cells understand this better than most, and over the next decade, a great deal of effort will go into demystifying hydrogen, reassuring nervous buyers that the pressurized tanks sitting just beneath their back seats are far safer than a traditional gas tank. "You can't get around safety questions," Ellis says. "You have to come directly at them and help people understand."
But marketing may be the least of the problems. Yozo Kami, the revered Honda engineer known within the company as the father of the fuel cell, is blunt when he describes the logistics of translating the FCX into a product for the mass market. As it stands, practically every part for Honda's fuel cells is custom made and fabricated out of extremely expensive materials. The process is delicate and labour-intensive - nothing like pumping out engines for Honda Civics. "I cannot give you specific details," the grandfatherly Kami says through a translator, as he rocks back and forth on his heels in the California sunshine. "But it is astoundingly expensive. We don't have the technology to make fuel cells in mass volume yet. It takes a lot of manpower and time. If somebody came and said, 'make a lot of them,' practically speaking, we can't."
Honda and the rest of the auto industry is now working diligently to crack the problem of mass production and cost, encouraging manufacturing partners and parts suppliers to ramp up their own efforts, in hopes of driving production costs down. But realistically, that kind of radical change takes time, probably until 2018 before any truly mass market rollout happens. And when that day comes, it won't come cheap. The FCX, for example, is envisioned as a luxury automobile, to be sold in the same price category as an Acura RL - roughly $65,000. Chances are you're going to buy at least one more conventional car before you're even considering the merits of a hydrogen alternative.
If you're lucky enough to persuade Honda to sell you one of their hydrogen cars today, you'll have a car that cost more than a million bucks to develop and build. There's no word on what the few cars released in 2008 might actually sell for. And then you'd have to figure out where to fill it up - which remains perhaps the biggest thing holding back the hydrogen future. There are still only a handful of publicly accessible hydrogen fuelling stations, scattered across North America. In 2003, the White House announced US$1.2 billion in funding for a hydrogen fuel initiative, aimed at speeding the development of infrastructure. But, as Kami acknowledged as he watched one reporter after another take his prized creation for a spin around Laguna Seca, "it's a chicken and egg problem." It's hard to interest partners in building refuelling stations for cars that aren't yet on the road, and it's hard to produce a mass-market automobile when the entire world, from the corner filling station to your local mechanic, is geared toward gasoline-powered vehicles.
Marc Melaina, a professor at the University of California, Davis, has spent much of his academic career studying the economics of hydrogen transportation. The bottom line: it's expensive but not impossible. "The fact that they've made improvements in vehicle performance is critical, but cost [reductions] also have to be realized and that can only happen through mass production," he says. "So stations have to be put down for consumer convenience, then mass production of vehicles can ramp up, but the two basically have to happen at the same time for the economics to pay off."
That, he says, is going to require investment from automakers, energy companies and government, all working in partnership, all taking a bit of a leap of faith that hydrogen really is the best bet for the future. And how much will it cost? Perhaps as much as another US$5.1 billion to make hydrogen available for sale at 9,200 filling stations across the U.S. Honda and others have been trying to develop their own solutions - ideas like solar-powered hydrogen generators, and a comprehensive home refuelling system that uses natural gas to produce heat and electricity for the home, while generating hydrogen to run your car.
It all sounds excellent, and a long way from reality. Which still pretty much describes the state of the hydrogen economy.
The car works. And that is a phenomenal achievement. It's everything else that doesn't. But they're working on it.
Maclean's March 5, 2007