Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell development programs fell off the automotive radar screen when the global economy faltered in 2008 and automakers focused on immediate survival rather than future products.
A couple of years later, after the industry was turned upside down by soaring oil prices and economic turmoil, governments began mandating tough new limits on fuel economy and carbon-dioxide emissions. As a result, fuel cells re-emerged with fanfare at the 2011 Frankfurt Auto Show with the flashy Mercedes-Benz F-125 concept.
Aimed at the year 2025, Mercedes made two big statements with the fuel-cell-powered vehicle: It planned to make big, fast luxury liners that cruise the autobahn at triple-digit speeds forever, and secondly it did not believe batteries alone could meet that challenge, at least not in the next few product cycles.
Since then, lots of new or reinvigorated fuel-cell programs have re-entered the spotlight with vastly improved technology. Hyundai and Toyota fuel-cell vehicles now are being sold or leased to consumers around the world, albeit in tiny volumes.
The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell was named one of Wards 10 Best Engines in 2015. (WardsAuto recognizes all powertrains as “engines” much like The Recording Academy recognizes outstanding musical achievements with Grammy awards.) More all-new fuel cell powertrains are coming from Honda, General Motors and others by 2020 or before.
A much-needed hydrogen refueling infrastructure also is taking shape in California and key Northeastern states, although progress is slow.
When Bob Lutz headed product development at GM from 2001 to 2010, he firmly opposed the automaker’s massive fuel-cell development efforts whenever he could. He went public in 2011 with his book “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.”
“I frequently attacked what I considered to be the single-minded, heavy financial commitment to fuel cells, feeling they were too far out on the time horizon and robbing us of the research funds needed to create more viable near-term solutions,” he wrote.
CEO Rick Wagoner ignored his opposition, convinced by GM’s internal fuel-cell lobby, led by charismatic scientist Larry Burns, that the automaker was on the verge of a major breakthrough that would enable it to produce vast fleets of carbon-free vehicles that would be cheaper to build than conventional cars, Lutz says.
That never panned out, but GM kept its fuel-cell program alive through its bankruptcy in 2009, and the automaker is developing a new FCV expected to be introduced around 2020, working jointly with Honda in key areas.
Meeting ZEV Mandate Key
I called Lutz recently to see if he had modified his stance in light of the recent technological progress. The answer came through loud and clear: No, he hasn’t changed his mind.
All the new product programs are aimed at one thing: Meeting California’s zero-emissions vehicle mandate, he says.
Even though the cost of fuel-cell technology has come down, the same problems still are there with mass-producing fueling and storage systems to accommodate hydrogen at 10,000 psi (690 bar) and producing the hydrogen itself in an environmentally friendly process, he says.
The auto industry has experimented with onboard hydrogen storage systems for decades, he adds, including storing it as a cryogenic liquid in a thermos-like fuel tank. “None of it makes any sense,” he says.
Meanwhile, lithium-ion battery and fast-charging technology continues to improve and will be able to provide the long ranges necessary to attract EV buyers in the future. “Plus, you can plug them in anywhere.”
Despite his skepticism, Lutz predicts most major automakers will introduce fuel-cell vehicles because they provide a disproportionately favorable number of ZEV credits that can supplement those earned from selling battery EVs, most of which are selling poorly because of cheap gas and a limited pool of environmentally committed car buyers.
He says buses and other centrally fueled fleet vehicles might be a good niche for fuel-cell technology down the road, but he says all vehicles designed to meet ZEV mandates will be money-losers that will be financed by higher prices on vehicles consumers really want, such as luxury SUVs.
And even though the 54.5 mpg (4.3 L/100 km) CAFE target for 2025 overestimated fuel prices and did not anticipate the colossal shift in vehicle sales from cars to CUVs when automakers agreed to it five years ago, Lutz does not expect the current midterm review process to result in a lower number.
Target numbers for fuel economy in the U.S. and carbon emissions in Europe are politicized and symbolic. Politicians and activists will not agree to roll back official goals they are invested in, he says.
However, Lutz does say it is possible regulators may be willing to negotiate additional off-cycle credits for new technologies, making the rules easier for automakers to achieve without changing the original unadjusted, largely theoretical target of 54.5 mpg.
With the presidential election coming up, I asked if he has any insight as to whether a Clinton or Trump administration would be better for the U.S. auto industry. There is a long pause at the other end of the line and then in un-Lutzian fashion, he politely declines to comment.