In a run from about 2002 to 2008, Honda racked up an impressive list of firsts regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles. But in the past five years, the Japanese automaker has been relatively quiet regarding fuel cells. The hiatus—which roughly coincides with the emergence of battery-powered cars—ended in January 2015 with the debut of the sleek yet spacious Honda FCV Concept. Honda aims to begin selling the car in March 2016 in Japan.
“This is going to work for people who want a zero-emission car that you can fuel up in a few minutes for a 300-mile range and who live in the proximity of hydrogen fueling stations,” Steve Ellis, Honda’s manager of fuel cell vehicle sales, said in an interview with The New York Times.
That message—the combined benefits of greater range and quicker refueling times for a zero-emissions vehicle—has essentially not changed in the past dozen years. The efficiency of the fuel cell stack, and the ability to store more hydrogen on board (in higher pressure tanks) are significant improvements, but those desirable attributes were never the major stumbling block. What’s preventing a faster rollout of hydrogen cars from Honda, Toyota, Hyundai and others is lack of infrastructure.
“With renewed attention to the development and thoughtful rollout of a fueling infrastructure, it’s a very exciting time for both the technology and the promise it holds,” said Robert Bienenfeld, assistant vice president of environment and energy strategy for American Honda Motor Co.
Honda’s accomplishments with hydrogen technology centered on its previous fuel cell concept car—the FCX. It was the first EPA-certified fuel cell vehicle (2002); the world’s first production fuel-cell vehicle (2002); the first such vehicle to be leases to an individual consumer (2005); and the first dedicated fuel-cell vehicle to be built on a production line specifically for fuel-cell cars (2008).
Car Companies Need to Support Fueling Companies
Like Toyota, Honda—to bring its hydrogen vision to fruition—can’t make the cars, but sit back and wait for fueling infrastructure to emerge on its own.
In November, the company announced a $13.8 million financial contribution to FirstElement Fuel to help build hydrogen refueling stations in California. In May 2014, Toyota lent $7.3 million to FirstElement to help build 19 hydrogen fueling stations in California. Most of the pumps will be built at existing gas stations at a cost of about $1.4 million a station, said Joel Ewanick, chief executive FirstElement. Toyota also contributed funds to Air Liquide SA, an industrial-gas company, to build hydrogen stations on the east coast.
These investments will help, but the build-out of hydrogen stations can’t happen soon enough for Honda and others. Ellis remains hopeful. He said that by the end of 2015, there would be enough hydrogen fueling stations in Southern California to justify production of the FCV for that specific market. The number of vehicles is likely to be low, as the previous car, the FCX Clarity, was leased only to about 45 customers since its introduction in 2008.
Think of these first cars and first stations as taking hydrogen’s chicken-and-egg problem—and breaking the egg. Honda and Toyota both have vehicles, and are both investing in stations.
“We’re seeing the ramping up now of these facilities, and it’s only going to accelerate from here,” Ellis said. Honda hopes to see about 50 stations online in Southern California by 2016. By the time 100 strategically located stations are available, Honda estimates, about half of California likely to buy a fuel cell car will have the fueling infrastructure to supports its production.
John Mendel, Executive Vice President, Automobile Division, American Honda Motor Co., Inc. talks about the Honda FCV Concept during the Honda press conference at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, MI on Jan., 13.