Electric cars may have arrived, but the search for the perfect alternative fuel is still in progress. There are still a few major issues that keep battery powered vehicles from replacing the internal combustion engine.
Range, recharge times and infrastructure are a few of the main problems with electric vehicles. That’s why automakers continue to innovate with many people believing the hydrogen fuel-cell is the solution.
“Electric vehicles and hybrid cars are the avenue to getting to hydrogen powered cars,” Said Devin Lindsay, IHS Automotive’s Senior Analyst. ” [Hybrids and EVs] fill in the gap until we have an infrastructure ready for Hydrogen fuel” Lindsay added.
Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the potential to reduce our dependence on imported oil and are also environmentally friendly. In theory, electric vehicles eliminate the need for fossil fuels, but in reality more than 40 percent of electricity in the U.S. is produced by coal plants. Hydrogen, however, produces no pollutants and is a renewable resource.
Additionally, a hydrogen-powered car can be refilled in about five minutes which is close to a gasoline tank. This is a huge advantage over electric cars which take hours to fully charge. Finally, the range of an electric vehicle changes based on temperature, so people in snowy climates get a different range than people passing palm trees during their morning commute. Besting EVs again, hydrogen cars are consistant in every market.
While hydrogen powered cars might sound like a complicated technology, its not that far from what we already have. Imagine an extended range electric vehicle, like the Chevrolet Volt, but instead of a gas powered generator, you have a hydrogen powerplant which converts hydrogen fuel into electric energy. Also, instead of emitting greenhouse gases, the only by-product of a hydrogen vehicle is water. While these water-emitting cars aren’t at the forefront of most media coverage, companies are quietly developing the technology.
As the same company that brought gas-electric hybrid cars to the masses, Toyota is investing time and money in hydrogen vehicle development.
“We like hydrogen for a lot of reasons, most importantly because we try to be a customer focused company and give people products they want,” Craig Scott of Toyota’s Advanced Technology Group said. Scott explained that current alternate fuels ask for too many compromises, like range. “Hydrogen doesn’t have those compromises. It’s the most gasoline-like competitor.”
Toyota has had a hydrogen test vehicle around for almost 10 years. It looks a lot like the Highlander SUV, but has a hydrogen power train propelling it.
The company’s FCV-R concept (seen above), which appeared at recent auto shows, is a better representation of what Toyota will release as a hydrogen vehicle. According to the company, we can look forward to a production model by 2015. Scott also said the hydrogen technology is essentially finalized and that Toyota is now spending a lot less time on the vehicle itself, and more time on helping establish a hydrogen fueling infrastructure.
Hydrogen powered cars are actually available in limited areas: Honda offers one for lease in southern California.
“For now, the FCX Clarity is only available for lease in southern California due to the relatively undeveloped hydrogen refueling infrastructure in other parts of the country,” Honda public relations representative Chris Martin said.
The FCX Clarity (seen above) doesn’t look particularly futuristic, with its Civic-like lines and shape. It’s just four inches shorter than an Accord. But in it is a hydrogen powered electric motor, which helps the FCX Clarity get around 74 mpge. The driving range is 240 miles, about double that of most of electric vehicles and about on par with extended range electric vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt, or Fisker Karma.
For now though, the FCX Clarity lives exclusively in California. Martin did say that because hydrogen can be made from a variety of sources, there is no reason that stations can’t be developed anywhere without the need for an extensive infrastructure.
Martin’s message echoes the sentiments of other car companies. Hyundai has been working on a hydrogen powered version of its Tucson SUV for a while now.
“From Hyundai’s perspective, the company currently believes in FCEVs as the ultimate zero-environmental-impact approach for transportation in a vehicle. The company is currently testing its fourth-generation fuel cell system that was developed entirely by Hyundai.” said Chad Heard, public relations manager from Hyundai Canada.
Heard also said Hyundai plans to lease more than 1,000 Tucson FCEVs this year and, like Toyota, is planning for mass production in 2015.
At a press event, Hyundai said “Hydrogen proposes a completely new energy economy in the U.S.” Their Tucson FCEV (seen above) apparently gets about 70 mpge and can travel more than 400 miles on a tank.
Mercedes-Benz has been toying with alternate fuels as well. The German automaker has several diesel powered vehicles in its line-up, and is steadily introducing hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles.
It comes as no surprise then that they also have a hydrogen powered car up their sleeve. Last year, Mercedes-Benz showed a working version of its B-Class subcompact using hydrogen fuel.
“The B-Class F-CELL combines a generous, emission-free range of approximately 248 miles with short refilling times of just 3 minutes, making it highly suitable for everyday use in urban areas as well as longer journeys.” said Michael Minielly, a public relations representative from Mercedes-Benz Canada.
These companies seem to agree that hydrogen fuel is a valid path to pursue when it comes to finding an environmentally friendly and renewable energy source. However, just like electric vehicles there is a lack of infrastructure. Automakers are working together to promote hydrogen infrastructure, but how fast it will happen, and how successful they will be has yet to be seen. For companies like Toyota and Hyundai that have made commitments to 2015, the clock is ticking.