Hydrogen fuel-cell cars look to overtake electric autos
As electric cars try to forge more than just a niche in the market, the auto industry is already looking to another form of clean technology that could overtake today’s battery-powered vehicles.
Commitments by automobile manufactures to develop hydrogen fuel-cell cars have surged in recent months. Toyota, Hyundai, Daimler and Honda announced plans to build vehicles that run on the most abundant element in the universe and emit only water vapor as a byproduct.
“A lot of auto makers believe the fuel-cell vehicle is just a better performing vehicle and just makes more sense,” said Kevin See, a senior analyst of electric vehicles at Lux Research in Boston.
A fuel-cell-powered car can travel much longer distances than battery-powered ones before needing to be refueled, and fuel cells can be more readily used in large vehicles like trucks and SUVs.
Hyundai has announced that it will offer a fuel-cell version of its ix35 sport utility vehicle (known as the Tucson in the U.S.) on lease by the end of this year. It plans to make up to 1,000 fuel-cell cars by 2015 and thereafter 10,000 fuel-cell cars per year.
Byung Ki Ahn, the general manager of fuel-cell research at Hyundai, said the company’s fuel-cell vehicles are not directly competing with its battery-powered ones. “There might be some overlapping in-between, but basically, our strategy is that we are developing fuel cells for heavier and mid-size cars and (battery-powered) electric vehicles for smaller ones,” he said.
Although Hyundai claims that it will be the first to offer fuel-cell vehicles commercially, other car makers will be right behind it. Toyota and Honda have said they will release a fuel-cell car in 2015.
While battery powered electric vehicles do not emit pollutants, harmful emissions are nevertheless emitted from power plants where the electricity is often generated.
Also a type of electric vehicle, a fuel-cell car takes hydrogen gas and converts it into electricity, while emitting only water vapor. But the processes used for extracting and transporting hydrogen can be energy intensive and rely on fossil fuels.
The advantages fuel-cell vehicles have over cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are shorter refueling times and greater range. The Leaf, for example, runs for only 73 miles and takes seven hours to charge on a home-charging station. In contrast fuel-cell cars can be driven for hundreds of miles before needing to be refueled, and it takes only a few minutes to fill a tank with hydrogen.
In a survey of auto industry executives conducted by KPMG, respondents expected that among electric vehicles, hybrids will have the highest customer demand by 2025, followed by fuel-cell vehicles, outdoing the demand of battery-powered cars.
One major barrier to wide-spread adoption of fuel-cell cars is the need for a network of refueling stations, which according to analysts cost upward of $1 million each to build. According to the website of the U.S. Department of Energy, the country has nine public refueling stations, all located in California. Countries including Germany, Denmark and South Korea have plans to roll out dozens of stations in coming years.
While the fuel-cell ix35 production cost is confidential, Ahn says Hyundai’s target sale price for the next three to five years for the vehicle is $50,000. The price of a petrol-powered ix35 starts at around $20,000.
“They don’t force you to change your habits in terms of fueling — you can still fill up at a gas station — and that’s a much lower barrier for broader entry to market.”