Hydrogen Electric Vehicles
Americans bought nearly 80, 000 electric cars last year but just 1, 082 fuel cell vehicles, according to WardsAuto.
That’s why automakers will keep hedging their bets and offer electric vehicles alongside hydrogen ones.
Honda began leasing the 2017 Clarity fuel cell sedan earlier this year; about 100 already are on the road. At this week’s New York Auto Show, the company also introduced electric and plug-in hybrid versions of the Clarity.
The plug-in hybrid can go 42 miles in electric mode before a small gas engine kicks in, Honda says. The all-electric Clarity can go 111 miles on a charge. Both are set to go on sale this year.
“We think going forward, the powertrain market is going to be very diverse, ” said Steve Center, vice president of the environmental business development office at American Honda.
Hyundai’s Genesis luxury brand also blended technology with its GV80 SUV prototype, which was revealed in New York. The GV80 is a plug-in fuel cell vehicle, which means it would get power from stored electricity as well as hydrogen. It’s not clear when — or if — the GV80 will go on sale.
Fuel cell cars create electricity to power the battery and motor by mixing hydrogen and oxygen in the specially treated plates that combine to form the fuel cell stack.
The technology isn’t new. GM introduced the first fuel cell vehicle, the Electrovan, in 1966. It seated only two; the back of the van housed large steel tanks of hydrogen and oxygen. It went about 150 miles between refuelings. On at least one occasion, its hydrogen tank exploded.
Advances in hydrogen storage, fuel cell stacks and batteries have enabled engineers to significantly shrink those components to fit neatly inside a sedan. Oxygen is now collected from the air through the grille, and hydrogen is stored in aluminum-lined fuel tanks that automatically seal in a crash to prevent leaks. Reducing the amount of platinum used in the stack has made fuel cell cars less expensive.
Honda’s new Clarity can go 366 miles between fuelings, the longest range in the industry.
The Clarity leases for $369 per month for 36 months. That’s more than the $354 monthly lease payment for the Chevrolet Bolt electric. But Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are all throwing in free hydrogen refueling. It costs between $13 and $16 per kilogram for hydrogen, or up to $80 to fill the Clarity's 5-kilogram capacity, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Even with that perk, analysts think sales of fuel cell vehicles will be limited until more fueling stations are built. But automakers still will invest in fuel cells. GM’s Freese says there are many applications beyond cars, including unmanned deep-sea vehicles and backup home power systems.
“One of the reasons global car companies do something like this is they want to have a finger in the pie. Should we suddenly have to shift over, they want to be able to do it, ” said Jack Nerad, an executive market analyst with Kelley Blue Book.
The number of fueling stations also could grow quickly if automakers partner with governments and energy companies, as they have done in California. This year, 13 companies — including Shell and BMW — formed a council to accelerate the adoption of hydrogen as a transportation fuel.
Heather McLaughlin of San Ramon, Calif., was one of the first customers to lease a 2017 Clarity. She says she prefers a fuel cell car over an electric because she can refuel it in minutes. And one fill-up a week more than covers her 50-mile daily commute to Benicia, where she serves as the city attorney.
She said she recently drove the Clarity to Southern California and found plenty of stations along her route.