AutoMatters: Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles – Coming Soon?

By Jan. R. Wagner

We’ve been hearing about them for years: affordable fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) with reasonable driving range and performance comparable to vehicles with internal combustion engines, but with significantly lower exhaust emissions and little to no need for fossil fuel.

Early fuel cells were developed for use on spacecraft, which needed an onboard way of producing electricity. However the large size and high cost of these fuel cells made them impractical for use in automobiles. Years of subsequent development have addressed these problems to the point where FCEVs now offer similar size and features to conventional vehicles.

FCEV prototypes have been racking up the miles on public roads, here in California and around the world. Toyota began testing fuel cell vehicles in the U.S. and Japan in 2002. Ford began testing a fleet of Focus fuel cell vehicles in 2005.

In 2007, to demonstrate its cold weather, real-world capabilities, a prototype Toyota Highlander fuel cell vehicle was driven along the Alaska Highway from Fairbanks to Vancouver, British Columbia – a distance of 2300 trouble-free miles in seven days. It travelled as far as 348 miles on one fill. Of course there was no hydrogen-refueling infrastructure in place so they brought their own source of hydrogen for the test.

Marking a major improvement between their second and third generation Tucson FCEV, Hyundai announced a maximum driving distance per single refueling of 403 miles at a gasoline equivalent fuel efficiency of 72 mpg.

There are two ways to make hydrogen available in a vehicle for the production of electricity. One way, which yields no harmful emissions (only water and heat), is to dispense pressurized hydrogen into an on-board vehicle storage system. Another way, which produces low levels of air pollutants, is to store methanol, ethanol or natural gas onboard and then convert that, with an onboard device called a reformer, into hydrogen gas. With both methods the hydrogen would then be converted into electricity, to power electric motors that move the vehicle.

Refueling an FCEV is quick and easy, and driving range can be several hundred miles between fill-ups. Contrast this with electric vehicles, which generally offer much more limited cruising range and need to be plugged in and recharged.

FCEVs will lessen our dependence on foreign oil. They will also have a positive impact on our environment. Thanks to their use of electricity, maximum torque for FCEVs is available immediately and acceleration is brisk from a standstill. Electric vehicles are also very quiet. FCEVs’ fuel systems have been rigorously tested for safety. Furthermore, unlike gasoline, hydrogen is very buoyant and rapidly disperses in the air.

In January 2010, Toyota announced a three-year program to place more than 100 fuel cell hybrid vehicles on the road. Mercedes-Benz and Honda have offered very limited lease programs that qualified drivers in certain markets could apply for, but for the most part FCEVs have not yet been made available to the general public.

The technology is just about where it needs to be for a projected 2015 rollout. In 2010, GM announced plans to work with partners to “make hydrogen-powered vehicles and a fueling infrastructure a reality in Hawaii by 2015.” By that year, Toyota plans to offer a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle commercially in California and in other parts of the world. Stated goals are to produce “a vehicle that will be reliable and durable, with exceptional fuel economy and zero emissions, at an affordable price.” In January of this year, Hyundai began production of the ix35 fuel cell in Korea. The first complete vehicle followed in February. Watch for announcements from Mercedes-Benz, Honda, Ford and other major automobile manufacturers.

What could seriously delay the rollout in the U.S. is our hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Despite their previous commitments to make significant financial investments in this vital area, federal and state governments are being forced to cut back drastically on spending. Hydrogen refueling stations are few and far between. I’ve seen one Shell hydrogen refueling station in Torrance, across the street from Toyota’s U.S. headquarters; and according to the Mercedes-Benz website, four more Southern California hydrogen refueling stations are located in Burbank, Manhattan Beach, Irvine and Newport Beach, but many more will be needed.

If you’d like to learn more about fuel cell electric vehicles, resources include the California Fuel Cell Partnership (, the U.S. Department of Energy and Wikipedia.

Until next time, please write to me with your comments and suggestions at


Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #283r1