All Eyes on Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles at the LA Auto Show

, Senior vehicles engineer | November 19, 2013, 11:50 am EDT
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Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles will take center stage at this week’s LA Auto Show. Three companies — Toyota, Honda and Hyundai — will unveil prototypes of new hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles and announce details of their rollout plans for 2014 and 2015. Fuel cell vehicles may not be as well-known as hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles, but they are a vital part of the solution to reduce pollution and oil use from transportation. These vehicles have been promised for some time, so it’s exciting to be on the cusp of having fuel cell vehicles in new car showrooms.

Filling up a hydrogen vehicle is similar to a gasoline vehicle in time and effort. (Credit Flickr user uonottingham)

Filling up a hydrogen vehicle is similar to a gasoline vehicle in time and effort. (Credit Flickr user uonottingham)

Fuel cells turn hydrogen into electricity & water

Hydrogen fuel cells join the advantages of clean, efficient electric vehicles with the convenience of fast refueling. The fuel cell combines hydrogen gas stored in a tank with oxygen from the air to produce electricity and water. The electricity from the fuel cell then powers an electric motor, similar to today’s plug-in electric vehicles. And like battery electric vehicles, there is no smog-forming or climate-changing pollution from the vehicle’s tailpipe.

However, just as producing electricity to charge a plug-in vehicle creates emissions, hydrogen also generates emissions. Hydrogen made today from natural gas gives about the same total emissions per mile as charging a plug-in vehicle with electricity generated from natural gas. But hydrogen can also be made from renewable sources like biomass and solar power, so in the future hydrogen-powered vehicles can be much cleaner than gasoline-burning vehicles.

Fill ’r up

Another advantage of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that they can be refueled at a filling station in a short time.  This means that drivers who would rather not plug in a battery electric car can still use a clean electric motor to get around. The filling time is about the same as a gasoline vehicle, about 5-10 minutes for a 300-mile range.

Of course, to take advantage of a hydrogen car, the filling stations need to be available. California is building the first wave of hydrogen filling stations with 28 currently operational or under construction and 68 planned for use by 2016. Starting in the Los Angeles and San Francisco metro areas, these stations are designed to fuel the first 20,000 fuel cell vehicles.

Bigger and brawnier EVs

Adding more range or power to a battery electric vehicle requires more battery cells, but adding cells increases costs. In fuel cell vehicles, the amount of energy stored can be increased without a proportional increase in cost because only a larger hydrogen tank onboard is required. The practical result is the ability to make an electric-drive SUV-style vehicle with the same cargo capacity and range as a gasoline version. In real-world tests in southern California, a fuel cell-powered Toyota Highlander SUV demonstrated a range of more than 400 miles range and the equivalent of 69 miles-per-gallon efficiency.

On an even larger scale, the Bay Area’s AC Transit runs clean hydrogen fuel cell buses by our Berkeley office many times a day. These buses have logged over 750,000 clean miles in the last 13 years, showing that fuel cells are a workable solution for electrifying large vehicles.

Teammates, not competitors

Battery electric, fuel cell electric, and more efficient gasoline vehicles have often been portrayed as competitors. However, this isn’t a winner-take-all situation because these technologies are complementary. Plug-in electrics can take advantage of the existing electric infrastructure and smaller electric cars can be especially efficient and cost-effective. Hydrogen fuel cells are a good option for larger vehicles, longer distance driving, and for drivers without a spot to recharge. And since many gasoline-powered vehicles will be sold in the coming years, more efficient conventional vehicles will also play a key role in transportation. All of these technologies are part of our strategy to cut projected oil use in half and tackle climate change. I’m excited that with the addition of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, some car buyers will soon have more clean vehicles to choose from at the dealership.

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  • Chris Woodward

    Where public funding supports hydrogen, battery electric and greater vehicle efficiency, you can be sure the technologies do, in fact, compete. Rampant public criticism suggests this funding could easily be considered limited. California’s recent approval of 200 million dollars, for the construction of up to 100 hydrogen filling stations, is a recent example. What the lack of a fast-DC charging network will cost, when existing EVs are avoided in favor of gas, is something FCVs are certain not to make up for any time soon. One might wonder how many DC-fast chargers could be bought for the price of one, 2 million dollar, hydrogen outpost.

    Competition further exists in the economies of converting electricity into hydrogen, and then back again into electricity, rather than charging a battery from one of the tens of millions of home outlets in the United States. Through specialized process, the more expensive production and distribution of hydrogen will face far less competition than do those who supply the fuels which electrify our grid. Consumers already benefit from this and, with education, pursue policies which affect both the environment, and their wallet. As eight states begin the pursuit of a 3.3 million zero emission vehicle policy, by 2025, they should concern themselves more with these things, too, before improvements to the limited vehicles Mr. Reichmuth identifies.

    • There is competition between different vehicles and technologies, but where I disagree is the proposition that investment in hydrogen infrastructure needs to come at the expense of plug-in vehicle support. California is supporting both technologies, which is the right choice.
      Fuel cell and plug-in electric vehicles each have advantages that will allow different refueling options. Using hydrogen stations allows up to 300 miles of range to be added in 5 minutes. As you mention, the fastest plug-in option is the DC fast charger. However, these chargers are limited to replacing about 150 miles in an hour. For some people, the fuel cell may be the only electric-drive vehicle that meets their needs. Other drivers will find home, workplace, and public electric charging stations a convenient option and will choose a plug-in vehicle. In order to meet the recent eight state, 3.3 million electric vehicle target, we will need both plug-in vehicles AND fuel cell vehicles to be available.

  • Richard

    President Obama’s ‘all of the above’ strategy has flaws when it comes to its inclusion of coal and other fossil fuel based energy generation. But fuel cells, electric, and hybird vehicles all make sense in the effort to meet different people’s needs, etc.

    We already own a Prius. And plan on purchasing another energy saving vehicle in the future as well..

  • I think it is important to turn attention to usage of more sustainable solutions for cars. For example it is especially important within the moving industry, where I am active. thanks for the good article nd many new insights Dave!