Will hydrogen cars finally hit the road?

Automakers have spent more than $9 billion on fuel cell development. Toyota, whose fuel cell vehicles are set to hit the market next year, is investing in hydrogen fueling infrastructure in California. (Credit: JOHN LLOYD/Flickr)

A number of factors are converging to make hydrogen fuel cell vehicles more attractive to investors and consumers, according to a new report.

“We seem to be tantalizingly close to the beginning of a hydrogen transition,” says Joan Ogden, professor of environmental science at the University of California, Davis, and lead author of the study. “The next three to four years will be critical for determining whether hydrogen vehicles are just a few years behind electric vehicles, rather than decades.”

Odgen and colleagues say that new strategies for developing fuel station infrastructure, falling costs for fuel cell vehicle and hydrogen station components, a new array of sporty hydrogen cars about to come to market from major car makers, and ample low-cost natural gas for making hydrogen are creating more favorable conditions.

Fueling stations

Having sufficient hydrogen fueling locations has been a major challenge. It’s a “chicken or egg” dilemma where automakers are reluctant to market cars without infrastructure, and station providers are reluctant to build stations without cars.

Recently, however, regional public-private partnerships are emerging to develop smart, comprehensive build-out strategies in different locations around the globe.

The researchers calculated that a targeted regional investment of $100-$200 million in support of 100 stations for about 50,000 FCVs would be enough to make hydrogen cost-competitive with gasoline on a cost-per-mile basis. This level of investment is poised to happen in at least three places: California, Germany, and Japan.

California and Toyota

In California, the state recently awarded $46 million to build 28 hydrogen fuel stations. Hyundai is leasing its Tucson FCVs to select consumers, while several other car makers—Honda, Toyota, BMW, Nissan, and Daimler—expect to have production vehicles on the road in the next few years.


Toyota, whose fuel cell vehicles are set to hit the market next year, is also investing in hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the state.

“In many respects, hydrogen fuel cell cars offer consumer value similar or superior to today’s gasoline cars,” Ogden says. “The technology readily enables large vehicle size, a driving range of 300 to 400 miles, and a fast refueling time of three to five minutes.

“Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could help us achieve a low carbon future—without compromising consumer expectations. Along with plug-in electric and efficient internal combustion engine vehicles, hydrogen is an important part of a portfolio approach to sustainable transportation.”

For California, having hydrogen as part of the fuel mix could be integral to the state reaching its twin goals of 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 and an 80 percent reduction below 1990 levels of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Hydrogen FCVs are increasingly seen as a critical technology for reaching long-term climate goals, with the potential for capturing a major fraction of the world’s “light duty” passenger car fleet by 2050.

However, the hydrogen transition is anything but certain.

“Hydrogen faces a range of challenges, from economic to societal, before it can be implemented as a large scale transportation fuel,” Ogden says.

“The question isn’t whether fuel cell vehicles are technically ready: they are. But how do you build confidence in hydrogen’s future for investors, fuel suppliers, automakers, and, of course, for consumers?”

Source: UC Davis