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Is a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Car in Your Future?

September 8, 2016
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There’s a new contestant in the electric car arena, one on which some major players, including Toyota and Honda, are betting big. It’s the fuel cell electric vehicle, or FCEV.

FCEVs use hydrogen, oxygen and a catalyst to make electricity on board, eliminating the heavy, bulky and expensive battery packs on which battery-electric cars rely.

A fuel cell car’s tank can be filled with compressed hydrogen gas in a matter of minutes, much like gassing up a conventional car. That’s much speedier than the hours a battery-electric may spend tethered to an electric charging cord, and with FCEVs being able to travel 250 or more miles between fill-ups, they may sidestep the range anxiety that has dampened consumer enthusiasm for electric.

But to date there are only two models in the retail market, with a third slated for launch near the end of 2016. And sales are limited to the greater Los Angeles and San Francisco/Silicon Valley areas of California, home to almost all of the nation’s scant handful of hydrogen filling stations.

Fuel cell cars aren’t cheap. Prototype models were reported to cost the manufacturers a cool $1 million. Costs have fallen significantly since then, but for now FCEVs are limited to upper-income shoppers.

Still, almost every major automaker is developing fuel cell technology, with nearly a dozen models expected to be launched globally by 2020.

There may be one in your future, so let’s take a look at what’s out there and at the pluses and minuses of a fuel cell car.

The vehicles

The lease-only Hyundai Tucson FCEV was first to market, with 125 on the road in the U.S. since the mid-2014 launch. The compact SUV leases for $499 a month for three years, which includes free fuel, free maintenance and insurance. Hyundai Tucson FCEV customers may also qualify for $5,000 from the California Clean Vehicle Rebate Project.

Toyota’s Mirai FCEV small sedan was launched earlier this year. Toyota leases the Mirai for $499 a month for three years, with free fuel and maintenance.

While 80% of the 270 Mirais sent to dealerships so far have been leased, you can also buy one. Toyota prices it at $57,500 before $20,500 in potential incentives.

Toyota officials have said that because fuel cell systems are more easily scalable than battery-electric systems, they expect to use the technology in other models in the future, including larger vehicles than can currently be designed with battery-electric technology.

Up next

The next fuel cell electric car to hit the market will be Honda’s Clarity Fuel Cell, a midsize sedan slated for late 2016. The company has said it will target a monthly lease cost of just under $500, based on a projected sticker price of about $60,000 before incentives. Honda hasn’t said whether it will sell the cars as well (battery-electric and plug-in hybrid versions of the Clarity are coming later).

Ford, Nissan and Daimler — which makes Mercedes-Benz cars — are co-developing fuel cell vehicle technology. BMW is working with Toyota on its own FCEV, and General Motors has teamed with Honda. Volkswagen, Audi and a number of Chinese automakers also are believed to be developing fuel cell electric cars. Vehicles from those automakers are expected by 2020.

Fueling stations

As of mid-2016 there were just 23 publicly available hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., 20 of them in California. That’s why Hyundai, Toyota and Honda limit sales to that state right now. A dozen hydrogen stations are slated for the Northeast, from Boston to New York, with the first four scheduled to open in 2017.

California’s “hydrogen highway” plan calls for at least 60 hydrogen stations to be opened in the state by 2020, with 50 of them scheduled by the end of 2017.  A recently opened hydrogen station midway between Los Angeles and San Francisco now permits fuel cell vehicles to travel between the two areas.

Technology

Fuel cell vehicles may sound futuristic, but their underlying technology is more than 175 years old. NASA has been using fuel cells to make electricity on spacecraft for almost half a century now, and the first modern fuel cell vehicle — a farm tractor — was introduced in 1959.

The fuel cell from which they get their name is a thermochemical generator that passes pressurized hydrogen through a catalyst such as platinum and extracts the hydrogen’s electrons to provide power for the car’s electric motor. The system then combines the hydrogen molecules with oxygen from the air to cool them down and expels the “exhaust” as a stream of water vapor.

Hydrogen

The hydrogen that makes this possible isn’t technically the fuel. It merely carries the electrons that are the raw material for the electricity that powers the vehicle. For automotive use, it is compressed to 10,000 pounds per square inch and measured by weight. A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of this compressed hydrogen carries approximately the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline.

Because fuel cell power systems are comparatively energy-efficient, a Toyota Mirai can travel more than 300 miles between refills of its 5 kg fuel system. The heavier Hyundai Tucson delivers 265 miles on 5.5 kg of hydrogen, and the range of the upcoming Honda Clarity has been given as “more than 300 miles” with a fuel tank about the same size as the Toyota’s.

Because the use of hydrogen as an automotive fuel is so new, it’s hard to compare it with the cost of gasoline. Toyota figures its present cost at $14 per kilogram. The Mirai can travel more than 300 miles on its 5 kg. Greater use of hydrogen in cars would lower the price, as with any fuel.

While hydrogen is highly flammable, tests by various hydrogen tank manufacturers and by researchers at the University of Miami (Florida) have shown that in accidents that breach the hydrogen tanks, the gas escapes upward, meaning that any flames would be directed up and away from the vehicle. Gasoline fumes, on the other hand, are heavier than air and will pool around the car in concentrations that can be explosive. Since hydrogen is 14 times lighter than air, it disperses quickly unless it is in a confined area, such as a garage.

Environmental impacts

Some fuel cell car detractors claim that while the vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, there is no environmental benefit to FCEVs because of the greenhouse gases created by hydrogen production, which is tremendously energy-intensive.

However, most government studies show that, on a global basis, fuel cell electric vehicles are more efficient and less environmentally harmful than gasoline and diesel vehicles in a full “well-to-wheels” comparison of the impact of fuel production and use.

Unless their hydrogen is produced using renewable energy sources, fuel cell cars are less energy-efficient than battery-electric vehicles. Proponents argue, however, that their greater range makes them more consumer-friendly.

Toyota Mirai at hydrogen fueling station: photo via Toyota.

John O’Dell is a longtime automotive writer who has covered alternative-fuel cars for the Los Angeles Times and Edmunds.com. He now runs the website The Green Car Guy.  Email: thegreencarguy@gmail.com.