Hydrogen Fuel Cell: Still the Car of the Future?

As the global attitude toward traditional energy sources continues to deflate, it feels like electric vehicles are here to stay. As we pointed out in our piece Electric Cars: Turn and Face the Strange Ch-Ch-Changes, several leading automakers have plans to create new EV models or expand their current lineup before 2020. So why, when most manufacturers are placing all their eggs in the electric basket, are Japanese automakers—specifically Toyota—spending billions of dollars in developing hydrogen fuel technology? What do they see that the rest of us are missing?

The Pros and Cons

Toyota has long praised a pro-hydrogen initiative, insisting it to be the sustainable fuel source of the future. And indeed, it has a lot going for it. Similar to EVs, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles run on an electric motor and produce no tailpipe emissions. Unlike their electric counterparts however, fuel cell vehicles don’t require long charging times. Drivers can fill up in a matter of minutes at a fueling station similar to those used for traditional gasoline. What’s more, because this technology produces power by harnessing the electricity caused when oxygen bonds to liquid hydrogen, fuel cell cars create water as a byproduct. That water is technically drinkable, although it’s not recommended. Still, who thought we’d live in a time when you could water your plants with car exhaust?

Despite these advantages, however, hydrogen vehicles still have a few glaring drawbacks. Namely, their cost. Right now, fuel cell production relies on using the exceedingly expensive precious metal platinum as a catalyst to generate electricity. Much of that production cost gets passed on to the consumer, pricing hydrogen vehicles out of the mainstream market. And even though most fuel cell vehicles get a longer range than comparable EVs, hydrogen fueling stations are extremely rare. For example, in the US, California is the only state that offers substantial infrastructure for this alternative fuel, with 36 stations. By comparison, most electric vehicles come with a charging cord that can be plugged in anywhere there is a properly grounded wall socket.

Is Dedication the Key to Success?

That doesn’t seem to be deterring Toyota, though. They recently announced that although they plan to join the race in developing a long-range battery-electric car, they will not be giving up on fuel cell technology. This commitment to a less popular and more expensive alternative is largely sustained by enthusiastic support from the Japanese government. Reuters reports that “Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pushing his vision of vehicles, houses, and power stations using hydrogen to end Japan’s energy crisis since the 2011 Fukushima disaster, which led to a dramatic drop in electricity production from its nuclear plants.”

So, this country-wide adoption of clean fuel does more than fight climate change. It allows Japan to develop a more independent energy source, as hydrogen can be produced all over the world. A worthwhile endeavor, since Japan currently relies heavily on imported foreign oil from volatile regions. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics is being publicized by the government as the defining moment to welcome a truly hydrogen society, as they plan to have much of the necessary infrastructure in place by then.

Ends Justifying Means

But the Japanese government isn’t the only bee in Toyota’s bonnet. Recently, the automaker teamed up with Honda and oil giant Shell to help realize its hydrogen dreams. The latter perhaps being an unlikely ally, but one who shares an interest in outpacing Tesla and profiting in the energy sector. Together they plan to invest millions in building and improving hydrogen fueling stations across California. “With companies like Shell supporting hydrogen refueling infrastructure, the motoring public and the investment communities will take note that hydrogen is going to be a major part of the future of clean, low carbon mobility,” said Steve Center, vice president, Connected and Environmental Business Development for American Honda Motor Co., Inc. in a Toyota press release.

Basically, monkey see monkey do. If hydrogen initiatives in California are successful, the rest of the US market might follow suit, with similar hopes for China. Because if there’s one thing we’ve learned in life, it’s the popular kids who set the trends. If the aggressive driving forces of such major players push a fuel-cell market, there’s a good chance it will come faster.

Same Old Story…Or is it?

Opponents will say But we’ve been hearing this for forty years! And they’re right. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is nothing new. And when exactly this alt-fueled future is set to arrive is still fuzzy. Meanwhile, electric battery technology advances every day, getting cheaper in the process. Plus there’s still the environmental hurdle to jump. Yes, EVs face questions of sustainable metal-sourcing methods and battery disposal management. But over 95% of today’s hydrogen is still produced by fossil fuel. Creating clean fuel with dirty fuel is incredibly self-defeating.

That’s not to say we won’t see this take hold in Japan, though. If the government is backing its country’s automakers, funding infrastructure development, and pushing engineers to discover cheaper and cleaner methods of production, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could very well begin gaining on EVs in the race for alternative energy. And besides, as today’s market loves to demonstrate—it’s good to have options, right?

Some exciting breakthroughs have recently been made in hydrogen technology. So stay tuned, as we’ll be discussing what that could mean for the future of driving. In the meantime, tell us what you think about fuel cell cars in the comments!


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