With Toyota and Hyundai both recently announcing production hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, it seems like the zero emissions, no compromise vehicle is finally here. As usual, the reality is a little more complex than the public relations announcements.
The American car buyer likes big, gasoline powered vehicles, even in times of gasoline costing well over $3 a gallon. This is seen in sales of the 268 horsepower Camry selling over 400,000 units last year, but the electric only Nissan Leaf selling just 22,000. Electric cars are great for their lack of emissions and cheap refueling cost, but they have serious drawbacks. A quick charge can take four hours, and the range of current models is limited to around 100 miles. Hybrids have been the stepping stone between designs, offering an electric motor to supplement the gas engine, making for lower emissions and better mileage than conventional gas-only, but without the range limitations of electrics. Still, they need imported gasoline, and are not emissions free. Now, hydrogen cars seem to be a promising way to deliver even better performance with zero emissions.
To be clear, hydrogen powered cars are not new. Mercedes and Mazda were working on them in the 1990s. BMW released a hydrogen 7-series in 2002. Honda leased the FCX Clarity starting in 2007. These initial publicly available cars were startlingly expensive, easily running 6-figures. Rumors suggested that even with the high prices, manufacturers were taking huge losses on every vehicle. However, a lot has happened in the last few years, and alternatives are exploding onto the market. This is primarily due to reduced costs of the hydrogen storage tanks, and an increase in efficiency.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles work by converting stored hydrogen into water. When the hydrogen mixes with oxygen, the conversion process creates electricity. That electricity is used to drive the car in a manner similar to electric cars, but with the advantage of a decent sized tank, instead of limited capacity batteries. Of course, the down side is having to refuel at a hydrogen filling station when there are currently only 10 in the USA.
Still, it is a step in the right direction, and early adopters will work the kinks out starting later this year. Hyundai is offering the 2015 model year Tucson Fuel Cell for $499 a month, including fuel and all maintenance. The conventional looking SUV can go 300 miles on a tank and takes less than 10 minutes to fill up. Not bad. The Toyota FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) takes a different route, and looks like a sporty 4-door from the future. People will know you are driving something different. Hopefully, Toyota keeps the futuristic look that goes so well with the forward-thinking drivetrain.