The hydrogen fuel cell vehicle is experiencing a moment in the sun this spring. First has come the early commercial availability of the Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell. Now, the auto rumor mill is buzzing over reports that BMW is planning to mass-produce a hydrogen car by 2020. BMW has yet to publically announce any plans for a hydrogen vehicle—a sharp contrast to technology development partner Toyota’s highly publicized foray into the field.
As auto experts speculate that BMW is most likely to launch the hydrogen car within its existing i-Series (which thus far has involved the celebrated i3 and i8 electric vehicles), the ongoing debate over whether or not electric vehicles are more competitive than hydrogen vehicles is heating up. Most famous, perhaps, is Tesla co-founder Elon Musk’s pronouncement that the idea of a hydrogen-powered car is “mind-bogglingly stupid.” Of course, Musk has a vested interest in making sure electric cars have prominent billing in the alternative transportation space. Toyota even countered Musk’s 2013 claim that fuel cell technology “is bulls**t” in a recent ad campaign for the Mirai proudly called “Fueled by Bulls**t” depicting formulation of cow manure into usable hydrogen fuel.
An imagined conflict?
But some argue the war of words between proponents of the two technologies is a distraction from the facts.
“In some ways, it’s a false debate,” Levi Tillemann tells the Fuse. He’s the author of The Great Race: The Global Quest For The Car Of The Future and a fellow with the New America Foundation. “Hydrogen and electric vehicles are not an either-or decision. They’re complementary in a lot of ways.”
Instead of educating consumers about the array of technologies that are presently and could eventually be available to them, the back and forth between industry leaders is proving to be a corrosive distraction.
Instead of educating consumers about the array of technologies that are presently and could eventually be available to them, the back and forth between industry leaders is proving to be a corrosive distraction—one that does nothing to improve energy security or bolster investment in more efficient and diversified transportation technologies.
“The problem is that Americans and consumers in general have a difficult time of understanding the concept of developing two, parallel technology tracks at the same time,” Tillemann explains. “I think Toyota is a terrific company but it is doing a bit of a disservice to the global market for alternative vehicles by so publically focusing on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles while at the same time criticizing electric vehicles.”
The infrastructure for electric cars is already light-years beyond existing hydrogen infrastructure.
Electric vehicles are already available and can make a compelling case for themselves to consumers. Toyota—even with the fanfare surrounding the Mirai—will only produce about 700 of the new hydrogen-powered car worldwide this year. While an exciting prospect, those numbers are not enough to overshadow the myriad electric car options already available to consumers that far outweigh any current hydrogen fueled options in terms of performance, convenience and affordability. What’s more, the infrastructure for electric cars is already light-years beyond existing hydrogen infrastructure. In addition to a growing network of publicly available chargers, users can charge their vehicles in their own home garages. Hydrogen cars would still need fueling stations that, for the most part, do not yet exist. Currently, there are only 12 of them open to the public in the entire U.S.
Lessons from Japan
For proof of the more immediate viability of electric cars, take Toyota’s own home country of Japan. Tillemann says that that’s where the clearest indications of the future for hydrogen and electric cars can be found: “Nobody is going to put the same level of resources in hydrogen infrastructure as Japan.”
Yet, in spite of Japan’s position on the vanguard of hydrogen technology, the actual numbers remain unimpressive. Tillemann cites recent estimates he received from the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) predicting that at best, only three percent of new vehicles sold in Japan in 2030 will be hydrogen-powered. On the other hand, some 30 percent are expected to be electric vehicles.
“They’re expecting electric vehicles to have at least ten times the sales as hydrogen vehicles by the year 2030,” he reiterates. “That forecast is also a target. From there, METI formulates a set of incentives and subsidies to help reach that target.”
While Toyota may choose to invest in and incentivize hydrogen fuel cell technology to reach that 2030 goal—small as it may seem—it is gamble that can only play out over the long term.
“Toyota is a famously long-game tech company. They think in terms of decades and not in terms of quarters.”
“Toyota is a famously long-game tech company. They think in terms of decades and not in terms of quarters… [it] is a company that has a big enough war chest—in terms of cash and [research and development] spending—that they can afford to plow money into technology that actually has pretty dismal prospects from the standpoint of commercialization. And they can keep that going for a couple of decades… and come out on the other side of the tunnel as the world’s dominant manufacturer of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles,” explains Tillemann, citing the hybrid Prius as an example of Toyota’s past investment in technology that was scoffed at initially and later went on to become a hit over the following decade.
Unlike Toyota, BMW has taken a quieter road on the journey to mass producing a hydrogen fuel cell car. But Tillemann does not see the German automaker’s silence as an indication that BMW is not still bullish on hydrogen technology: “[Both BMW and Toyota are] making a long term bet on hydrogen—or at least hedging their bets with investment in hydrogen technology. But most major automakers have a hydrogen fuel cell [research and development] program somewhere in the guts of their operation. The question is how public are they about it and how aggressive are they about commercialization—and Toyota is by far the most aggressive about commercialization.”
An efficient way to harvest and store hydrogen energy that is cheap, renewable, and abundant does not yet exist.
Aggressive or not, the challenge facing the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that widespread adoption of the technology is still premised on an uncertainty: Finding an efficient way to harvest and store hydrogen energy that is cheap, renewable and abundant does not yet exist. Or, as those in the industry joke: Hydrogen is the fuel of the future and always will be.
Perhaps it’s with a wink, then, that Toyota named its first-generation hydrogen car the Mirai—it’s the Japanese word for “future”, and whether it’s been perfected or not, it’s here now.