Fast Company

Why Is the Auto Industry Spending Billions on Hydrogen-Powered Wishful Thinking?

honda clarity

Everyday, it seems, we hear about another electric vehicle start-up with plans to revolutionize the auto industry. And with companies like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place slowly expanding their networks of EV charging and battery-swapping stations, it looks like EV technology is here to stay. So why are Daimler, Ford, GM, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Renault-Nissan, and Toyota working so hard to bring hydrogen-powered cars to market?

The eight companies announced yesterday that they will have hydrogen-powered vehicles ready for production at a cost-competitive level by 2015, at which point hundreds of thousands of fuel cell-equipped cars will be unleashed onto an unsuspecting public.

But this seems overly ambitious. US Energy Secretary Steven Chu threatened in July to cut hydrogen fuel cell funding because cars powered by the technology will require an extensive network of fueling stations. So will electric cars, but PHEV and EV technology is already much more affordable than fuel cell technology--meaning that it makes sense for start-ups to start building an EV infrastructure now.

And yet the car companies persist. Daimler in particular has spent $2 billion on fuel cell technology, and the company plans to spend $700 million more by 2011. And for what? Carmakers still don't know how to safely transport hydrogen for long distances, how to go about building a fuel station infrastructure, or even, for that matter, how to make hydrogen-powered cars affordable.

The only reason automakers could be so gung-ho about hydrogen is that they have some sort of fear that electric cars won't take off like they hope. That seems unlikely--too many established car companies, start-ups, lithium-ion battery manufacturers and infrastructure planners are already hard at work. Hydrogen may be a fine back-up plan, but can car companies really afford to throw billions at a technology that many predict is decades away from being viable? We don't have that kind of time to wean ourselves off gasoline, and Daimler, Ford, GM, et al know it.

Add New Comment

6 Comments

  • Tim Kaye

    Although I am a devout believer in the "capitalist" there is evidence over and over, that there is little or no concern for the life of our planet and its inhabitants. I cringe at the thought, however, there is an increasing mood suggesting our governing bodies must start taking some legislative control over manufacturing, and production to ensure our future is protected and our globe interests representative with the current knowledge of impact used to guide decisions. Our governments must take a hands on approach that is not based on political power rather a united effort to support people, animals and the living force of earth as they are unable to achieve without this hands on intervention.

    Tim
    Private Number Plates

  • Tim Kaye

    Although I am a devout believer in the "capitalist" there is evidence over and over, that there is little or no concern for the life of our planet and its inhabitants. I cringe at the thought, however, there is an increasing mood suggesting our governing bodies must start taking some legislative control over manufacturing, and production to ensure our future is protected and our globe interests representative with the current knowledge of impact used to guide decisions. Our governments must take a hands on approach that is not based on political power rather a united effort to support people, animals and the living force of earth as they are unable to achieve without this hands on intervention.

    Private Number Plates

  • Hank Merkle

    I agree with Chris C- I was thinking about not commenting, since the article seems so subjective rather than objective. Did you know that one of your flash advertisers on this article is Shell? A company "Knee-deep" in developing Hydrogen refueling stations! Have you been to a Hydrogen conference?
    Hydrogen is "REAL" Green technology with unlimited renew ability. Remember, right now with EV technology since the electricity has to come from somewhere it may not lead to the reduction of our dependence on foreign oil. Wind and Solar are coming on fast, but they are not quite ready yet. Hydrogen WILL require infrastructure, but wouldn't it be cool if we created jobs by developing an infrastructure that required re-training of people and in the end made us less dependent on foreign oil, and we became experts in the field?
    Also you talk about "Established" Lithium-ion battery manufacturing - look behind the veil - all the "domestic" manufacturers are tied so closely to foreign companies that we shift our dependence form foreign oil to foreign battery manufacturing!
    I am posting your article on Twitter and specifically "Poking" a number of people in the industry so hopefully they will help you re-write or possibly retract this article!

  • Derek Silva

    I believe one of the big pushes that should be driving this now is China limiting exports of rare earth metals - the very metals used in the batteries of the future.

    Moving to hydrogen will eliminate the need to focus so heavily on a single resource for the fuel of the future.

  • George Kafantaris

    Here is a comment posted elsewhere that might be relevant here as well:

    The renewed interest in hydrogen is not due to public relations gimmicks, but rather to the promising research the last couple of years in making, storing, and using hydrogen. These advances have not been missed by the foresighted business folks who are putting their good money on hydrogen.

    Indeed, business investment as of late has outpaced government sponsored research by a hundred fold. Nonetheless, our government needs to stay involved in order standardize the apparatus used to store and transport hydrogen, to coordinate the inevitable hydrogen infrastructure, and to regulate hydrogen safety.

    Moreover, our government should stay involved to capitalize on our pioneering research that has gotten everyone else around the globe off the ground. It will be most unfortunate to find ourselves on the outside looking in as others with more foresight reap the fruits of our sweat and tears the last six years.

    Even if hydrogen lives up to a fraction of its potential, it will have geopolitical implications, as is the case with all energy. Indeed, perhaps more so, as hydrogen is also a storage medium, much like a battery. For an equivalent amount of electric energy, a tank full of hydrogen is lighter than an array of batteries, and it is also recharged by a quick refill.

  • Chris C

    I feel there's so many arguing points to your piece that I'm having trouble editing them into a concise comment. The simplest way I can put it is: we should be praising and supporting any automakers who are investing research and money into any viable alternative fuel methods. Why WOULDN'T they explore hydrogen as an alternative? It's got the potential for the most win-win: it's the most abundant element in the universe and the only emission is water. Can't really ignore that.

    And yes, they do know how to build a fueling infrastructure because it already exists - gas stations. To refuel a hydrogen car is so similar to standard gasoline methods (storage tanks pump liquid into the tank of your car) that a retooling of our nation's fueling stations is all it would take. EV would be a different story. Most of the infrastructure for rapid refueling/recharging would have to be built from scratch - unless you're content with plugging into a socket in your home and waiting for 12 hours to refuel. Not to mention, what happens if the grid goes down?

    No, they have not have figured out how to cost effectively create and transport hydrogen or make the cars affordable. But that's exactly why they are investing in the technology now. The more money and time they invest now, the faster it can be made viable.

    It's absurd to think that just because there are electric vehicles in production now that we should stop looking for another alternative.