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Fuel Cell Vehicles: Carmakers are Renewed

By Evelyn Kanter, December 20th, 2014

The next big thing in alternative automotive technology is the hydrogen fuel cell car. Again.

Manufacturer photo: The Toyota Mirai is a midsize sedan with performance that fully competes with traditional internal combustion engines -- but it uses no gasoline and emits nothing but water vapor
Manufacturer photo: The Toyota Mirai is a midsize sedan with performance that fully competes with traditional internal combustion engines -- but it uses no gasoline and emits nothing but water vapor

The fuel cell car returns to the fore, after having been the next big thing a decade ago, before hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and electric vehicles drove away with its promise.

Automakers are once again focusing on fuel cell power, with more hydrogen news than hybrid or EV news at a recent new car auto show, where Audi, corporate sibling Volkswagen, Honda, and Toyota announced hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are in the pipeline.

The Audi A7 H-Tron hydrogen car would be the world's first performance fuel cell, a 230-horsepower marvel capable of accelerating from 0-to-60 mph in just under 8 seconds, and a range of around 350 miles between refills. It could be refilled in just three minutes, just like a conventional gas-powered Audi.

Dr. Ule Hackenberg, Audi's Board of Management technical chief, told me there's no timetable to introduce the A7 H-Tron, although he hopes it will be by the end of the decade. It depends on having an infrastructure to support refueling, which is the same chicken-and-egg problem we had with hydrogen cars a decade ago.

Manufacturer photo: The Toyota Mirai is a midsize sedan with performance that fully competes with traditional internal combustion engines -- but it uses no gasoline and emits nothing but water vapor

While there is a sprinkling of hydrogen stations around the U.S. and in Germany, it's not enough to prevent "range anxiety," the fear of running out of power. The same problem held back sales of electric cars until there was enough infrastructure, including home-based charging stations, to lower the fear factor.

VW's hydrogen car will be a Golf SportWagen, called HyMotion, a fourth-generation fuel cell design that shares an electric motor with the E-Golf. The fuel cell version promises a driving range of 310 miles, and accelerates from 0-to-60 mph in 10 seconds flat. Dr. Heinz Jacob Neusser, VW Board Member for product development, echoed his Audi colleague, telling me "When the infrastructure is there, we are ready."

The new Golf has been designed with a modular platform so it can be manufactured with a gas, diesel, electric, or fuel cell plant on the same assembly line. The Audi and VW hydrogen cars will be powered in part by advanced lithium-ion batteries produced for both at a new factory in Wolfsburg, Germany.

Toyota is planning to launch a Prius-sized fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, next fall in California, where there is the largest refueling infrastructure. Honda, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz already have fuel cell vehicles in the hands of consumers, not just corporate fleets for testing.

The dramatic-looking Honda FCV Clarity has been leased to the public since 2007. Honda also plans to add a second fuel cell model with its the futuristic looking FCEV five-passenger sedan, launching in 2016 in Japan, followed by the U.S. and Europe.

Manufacturer photo: The Toyota Mirai is a midsize sedan with performance that fully competes with traditional internal combustion engines -- but it uses no gasoline and emits nothing but water vapor

Honda also just announced a $13.8 million contribution to build hydrogen refueling stations in California -- enough for at least one dozen locations, to help grow the hydrogen market.

Hyundai has been leasing the Tucson fuel cell in California since June 2014, and sweetened the pot with unlimited free fuel-ups.

Mercedes-Benz drove an F-Cell B-Class around the world in 2012 to demonstrate its potential, and has been leasing the vehicle since 2013. When I test-drove it recently, it handled no differently than a conventionally powered car.

For the last decade, BMW has been focusing on its electric car program, driving home environmental and design awards for its BMW i3. There's no word when or if BMW will revisit its hydrogen program. I test-drove a hydrogen-powered 7 Series in Los Angeles in 2006, the same year BMW raced an H2R hydrogen racecar in Europe.

Also in 2006, Ford tested a fleet of 30 Focus fuel cell demonstration vehicles in North America and in Germany, and the company, then called DaimlerChrysler, gave 100 hydrogen sedans to police departments in the U.S., primarily in Michigan, for real-world testing.

In 2007, Chevrolet's "Project Driveway" put a fleet of Fuel-Cell-powered Equinox utility vehicles on the road. By the time two years had passed, Chevrolet boasted its Equinox fuel cell vehicle fleet had surpassed more than a million miles of service.

The last decade saw a shift from the promise of hydrogen fuel cells to hybrids, diesel, and EV technology. The pendulum seems to be switching renewed back to hydrogen. Stay tuned.

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