Are Hydrogen Cars the Next Big Thing … Again?

Battery-electrics may seem to have won the war for EV supremacy—in the U.S. at least—but don't count out the H2 industry just yet.

Mallory Short / Getty Images

It’s 1:35 PM in Los Angeles, and I'm making short work of the freeway. A Honda Fit appears ahead, moving slow like the driver is texting—which, it turns out, she is—so I push the "Sport" button on the dashboard. It works as advertised: throttle response turns aggressive, the accelerative punch snapping my head back as I overtake the small car, then a long semi-truck, before I zoom back to the right and head off the ramp and onto the palm-studded streets of Santa Monica.

These maneuvers are undertaken with an uncanny silence broken only by the slight whirr of electric motors. But I'm not inside the latest plug-in battery-electric offering from Chevy, or Nissan, or Tesla—even though, like those vehicles, I am producing zero carbon emissions from the tailpipe.

I'm driving a Toyota Mirai, a new commercially available small car that runs on a hydrogen-powered fuel cell. It sounds sci-fi, but the feel of the car is remarkably quotidian. The interior is clean, smart, and well organized: there's a steering wheel, pedals where they're supposed to be, a sat-nav display, and a center stack-mounted shifter like in a Prius. From the outside, the Mirai is essentially indistinguishable from any gas-guzzling or battery-powered vehicle on the road. But hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are remarkably rare: even in eco-friendly California, you're more likely to see a quarter-million-dollar Lamborghini or Ferrari supercar in the wild than you are a $57,500 Mirai, or a Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell or Honda Clarity (both of which are available only as leases).

For hydrogen advocates, it was not supposed to be this way. Less than a decade ago, hydrogen was among a number of alternative-fuel candidates to replace gasoline, including compressed natural gas, biodiesel, and battery-electric power. Then in 2011, President Obama used his State of the Union address to publicly call for one million plug-in battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) on the American roads by 2015. And while the actual number fell short of that goal, the nascent BEV enjoyed explosive growth thereafter: today, manufacturers from Fiat-Chrysler and Ford to Daimler, Chevy, BMW, and Nissan offer one or more battery-powered cars, and California upstart Tesla, which produces BEVs and nothing else, reigns as the most valuable automaker in America and one of the most recognizable brands in the world.

But as the Mirai proves, H2 proponents remain, and the world's largest automaker is among them. A burgeoning global industry is taking shape around hydrogen's potential—as a storable fuel source, and an advantage over battery-electric technology for long-haul, heavy-machinery, and military applications—even as BEVs like the Tesla Model S become enshrined in the public consciousness as the "mainstream" electric vehicle. 

THE CASE FOR HYDROGEN

FCEVs power themselves by converting hydrogen and ambient oxygen into electricity via an electro-chemical reaction in the fuel cell stack. The only byproduct is a wisp of steam. Like plug-in BEVs, they emit no harmful exhaust at the point of use, and are therefore seen by many as another path towards a zero-emission future. 

Like any fuel, H2 is only as clean as the energy source and methods used to produce it. Most H2 is created through a technique called "cracking," which involves splitting the methane molecule (CH4) found in natural gas into two H2 molecules and a free carbon atom. A natural gas production facility does produce significant emissions, though it is still cleaner than refining petroleum: for every BTU of energy produced, natural gas emits at least 50 percent less carbon than gasoline or diesel. And California, which leads the U.S. in hydrogen investment, by law requires that one-third of all H2 sold in the state be derived from renewable sources like water and wind power; by keeping emissions low at the point of production with so-called "green hydrogen," the pollution-per-mile of a California FCEV is roughly one-quarter that of a gas-powered vehicle.

"To improve our world, we simply must transition to zero-emission vehicles,” says Brian Goldstein, Executive Director of Energy Independence Now (EIN), an environmental nonprofit that created the seminal California Hydrogen Highway Blueprint for former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and which recently received a share of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation's $20 million in environmental grants. That transition won't be easy, but it is the plotted course of many industrialized nations. The UK and France have already committed to going zero-emission by 2040, India by 2030, and Norway by 2025

“We absolutely can achieve a 100-percent carbon-neutral footprint for FCEVs and renewable hydrogen production,” Goldstein says. “We are about to publish a study that demonstrates that renewable H2 production methods are mature, viable processes. It’s now a matter of 'when,' not 'if.'”

For many in the U.S., battery-powered electric vehicles are seen as having won the battle of alternative-fuel vehicles. But while BEVs will certainly play a major role in any zero-emission society, FCEVs currently enjoy three critical advantages over battery-electric cars: 1.) range; 2.) refueling time; and 3.) heavy-duty capability.

Fuel-cell cars can be filled in three to five minutes, roughly the same time it takes to refuel a car with a gas-powered internal combustion engine. This remains a categorical advantage over BEVs, which even under fast-charging conditions typically require several hours to fully recharge. And while battery-electric range is improving daily—the Chevy Bolt has a 238-mile range, and the highest-trim level Tesla Model S can run 315 miles between charges—most BEVs currently on the road can't match the range of fuel-cell electric vehicles that easily roam over 300 miles on a single tank. Finally, current battery storage capacities preclude battery-powered EVs from large-scale commercial use; anything from Class 8 semi-trailer trucks and construction equipment down to midsize SUVs cannot run for long distances on battery power alone. (There are exceptions, but they are rare and their applications highly limited.) 

Of course, unlike battery-electric vehicles, FCEVs don't have their fuel source already flowing through every home in America. The production, distribution, and sale of hydrogen remains the Everest-sized obstacle to wide-scale FCEV implementation.

Mallory Short / The Drive

H2 FACT SHEET

THE INFRASTRUCTURE CHALLENGE

"If people can’t fuel up their cars, they’re unable to drive,” says Janea A. Scott, commissioner of the CEC. “That’s why it’s so important for us to get those H2 stations out there."

California, thanks to a landmark environmental bill called AB 32, has been proactive in its attempt to create a usable hydrogen refueling framework. That bill has earmarked $136.4 million to date for the construction of new stations, helping mitigate the vulnerable stretch between financial investment and revenue generation that exists for any emerging product. (In investing jargon, this is known as the "Death Valley Curve.")

"The state is hoping to kickstart this by investing in an initial network of about 100 stations, and then hopefully at that point there will be enough cars and enough market that you’ll start to see more private investment pulling that market forward,” Scott says.

That 100-station threshold comes from a study that researched the critical mass necessary for consumers to see FCEVs as a viable option. The Alternative and Renewable Fuel and Vehicle Technologies Program (ARFVTP) will provide up to $20 million per year through 2023 to fund at least these 100 stations, in hopes of resolving the age-old chicken-and-egg conundrum: Who will buy FCEVs if there are no stations to fuel them, and who will build H2 stations if there are no vehicles to create demand?

"Somebody’s gotta make the first move,” says Scott. “And that’s what we’re doing."

When Toyota released the Mirai on October 23, 2015 there were only two "retail" H2 fueling stations—that is, a place where a driver could pull in, swipe a credit card, fill up, and leave, just like a gas station—in all of California. (While there were other hydrogen fueling stations in the state at the time, one had to belong to a private organization in order to use them.) A little over a year later, by January 1, 2017, there were 27 fully functioning stations in the Golden State. Two have opened since, for a total of 29. Most are located around Los Angeles and San Francisco, but there are also "connector" stations in places like Harris Ranch and Truckee, which make trips between northern and southern California possible and put tourist destinations like Lake Tahoe in play. Another round of 16 was approved in February, and are currently under development. A target of over 80 operational stations is set for 2020.

"Right now, you can get in your Toyota Mirai or Honda Clarity and drive the length and breadth of California, without worrying where your next fill-up will be," says EIN’s Goldstein, who drives a Mirai daily and reports his own hassle-free trip from Long Beach to Sacramento to San Francisco and back again. 

"And I did it way faster than anyone could in a Tesla, I’ll tell you that," he adds.

CARB developed an algorithm to deduce the ideal locations to fill in the refueling network. As each round of funding moves forward, the coalition has to decide whether to further service high-demand pockets, like LA and San Francisco, or build more connector stations to make other areas of California more FCEV-friendly.

"We’re actually trying to do a little bit of both," says Janea Scott, of CEC. "You need to fill out some of the centers where the cars are currently, but you also want people to be able to drive around the state."

Development across the Eastern seaboard, while slower than in California, is underway. Currently, a partnership between Toyota and France's Air Liquide, the world’s largest producer of H2, is developing 12 stations in the Boston and New York metropolitan areas, as well as connector stations in Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Toyota

The Toyota Mirai at a Shell hydrogen fueling station.

THE H2 CONSUMER EXPERIENCE

A small American startup called FirstElement has become a surprise mogul in the nascent hydrogen refueling station game, operating 17 of the 29 retail stations currently open in California and capturing eight of the 16 winning bids from the latest round, approved in February.

A tour of a FirstElement station located on the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Los Angeles International Airport reveals pumps that look like a modernized, sculptural interpretation of the standard gasoline variant, as well as a medium-sized shed behind a tall cinderblock wall. This storage unit, a feature of H2 refueling stations, holds a network of tanks, compression equipment, and pre-cooling apparatus. (Hydrogen must be cooled to 700-bar pressure for commuter FCEVs.)

The fuel itself is sold in kilograms, with a cost of about $60 to fill a tank—about 30 percent more expensive than gasoline for a roughly equivalent range per tank. However, multiple automakers offer a credit card good for the life of an FCEV lease that subsidizes up to $15,000 worth of H2 per year.

Most H2 depots are built on existing gas stations, taking on a lease for the area used. FirstElement, for example, leases about 700 square feet for every unit, on deals of at least 10 years. While H2 technology was not well known by California gas station owners even three years ago, interest is piquing thanks to educational efforts and, especially, to consumer interest.

“At this stage we expected [H2] stations generally to be at 20 percent utilization, perhaps hitting 30 or 40 percent on heavy days,” says Dr. Shane Stephens, founder and chief development officer of FirstElement. "Instead, we are seeing more like between 30 or 40 percent utilization as an average at many of our stations, and several of them are topping 50 or 60 percent utilization on heavy days." Two of the most popular FirstElement stations, in San Jose and Long Beach, regularly see days with 80 to 90 percent utilization rates.

Stephens is also seeing daily and hourly patterns emerging in the refueling flow; as people become more acclimated to owning FCEV’s, refueling paradigms start to look nearly identical to those of gasoline.

"That tells us that fuel cell cars can truly replace gas-powered cars, without customers having to change their driving habits,” Stephens says.

A surprise entrant to the hydrogen-infrastructure game is Utah-based Nikola Motors, a company that has raised eyebrows not just for its announced plans for a 320 kWh-powered tractor trailer called the Nikola One, which will reportedly generate over 1,000 hp and 2,000 lb-ft of torque, but for its ambitious goal of building a proprietary refueling network of 364 H2 stations across the U.S. in the next decade. If the company reaches even half that number, it could have a profound effect on the domestic H2 industry.

But perhaps the most definitive proof of the economic potential of these stations is Shell Oil’s surprising entry into the market. The gargantuan energy conglomerate showed little interest in H2 refueling stations before it won the remaining eight contract bids from the February approval session. 

“When you are trying to make a transformation of the magnitude that the state is trying to make, which is, we need about 90 percent of the vehicles sold by 2040 to be zero-emission vehicles, you [have] to have every major player helping out,” says the CEC’s Scott. "So to have a major player like Shell now in the game, like we have Toyota making the heavy-duty trucks and the Mirai, it helps move the industry forward at the speed that we need to move it.”

In June, Stijn van Els, management board chairman of Shell Deutschland Oil, called H2 "a fuel of the future," and said Shell believed "this alternative drive system will play an increasingly important role in markets like Germany, England, Benelux, and the USA as of 2020.”

THE HYDROGEN SOCIETY

The markets mentioned by van Els are not the only ones attempting to transition to H2. Japan is even more aggressive with its hydrogen timeline goals, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and others hoping to make big gains converting the country to a "hydrogen society" by the 2020 Olympics.

"The first Tokyo Olympics, 50 years ago, left a bullet train system as a legacy,” Tokyo governor Yoichi Masuzoe recently told the Wall Street Journal. “I want to leave a hydrogen society as a legacy for the next Tokyo Olympics.”

Toyota, Nissan, and Honda all agreed in 2015 to a joint venture that would help the government develop hydrogen station infrastructure, as well as partially cover its operating costs. By 2020, Japan hopes to have 40,000 FCEVs on the roads, along with at least 100 buses, a network of fueling stations, and entire Olympic Village buildings, such as athlete dorms, powered by fuel cells. A pipeline servicing the Village is also planned.

But the commitment is more widespread than the splashy Olympics activation. Since the 2011 earthquake in Fukushima and the catastrophic radiation poisoning that resulted, the island nation has elected to transition from nuclear to hydrogen power, and is pushing the installation of civilian fuel cells in homes and apartments. In this way, FCEVs from Toyota and Honda could act not only as transportation, but also portable energy sources; theoretically, a Mirai can also power a home.

Hydrogen is a viable and relatively inexpensive solution for energy storage, especially from renewables like solar and wind power, which otherwise lose surplus energy during low-use hours and periods of excess creation. (Due to various limitations, including cost and cell fatigue, batteries are not well suited to storing large amounts of energy.) And the same basic strategy for renewables can be applied to nuclear power plants during off-peak hours: store the excess energy as H2, then return that energy to the grid as needed to feed traditional energy requirements, like powering vehicles and homes. Increasing the H2 supply by storing excess renewable energy, combined with cultivating FCEV-related H2 demand, could quickly accelerate the economies of scale.

Japan has earmarked 40 billion yen (about $330 million USD) for the cause, including incentives of 2 million yen (about $20,000 USD) per vehicle to subsidize the proliferation of FCEVs; that discount cuts the price of a Mirai by about one third. These subsidies are significantly higher than what Toyota offers for its plug-in battery-electric vehicles.

Japan has more than 90 hydrogen refueling stations up and running right now, with a goal of having at least 150 stations functional by the 2020 Olympics. The country also hopes to grow the volume of FCEVs by 2,000 percent, to 800,000 vehicles, by 2030—an ambitious target, considering Toyota's 2018 sales goal for the Mirai is just 3,000 units, but one that emphasizes to automakers the government's commitment to H2. 

THE EUROPEAN COMMITMENT

Europe, led by Denmark, Germany, Norway, and the U.K., has also invested in the technology. Denmark boasts the world’s first nationwide network of refueling stations (a feat admittedly made easier by the fact that the country is smaller than New Jersey and needed only 10 stations, fewer than currently operating in Los Angeles, to qualify as "nationwide"). To boost the number of FCEVs on Danish roads, the government offers a tax exemption on the vehicles until January 1, 2019—a significant discount considering cars in Denmark are taxed up to 150 percent. The city council of Copenhagen has also legislated that all public transport should be zero-emission by 2025, while two other cities are also planning to use FCEV buses, many of which are built at Ballard Europe, based in the Danish city of Hobro. Other cities, like Hamburg and London, already use hydrogen-powered buses.

The Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership (SHHP), comprised of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden, has pledged to build an H2-fueled highway connecting the three northern nations. According to Björn Aronsson, managing director of Hydrogen Sweden, by 2020 Norway plans to add 20 more stations to the seven already in operation, and Sweden plans to have at least 14 total.

France and the UK each currently operate 19 hydrogen-refueling stations, while Germany leads the pack with 40 and another 27 in the pipeline; each has the capacity to serve about 40 FCEVs daily. By 2018, Germany hopes to have 100 functioning stations, and have committed to 400 by 2023, pending consumer pickup. Europe currently has 130 open H2 stations, of which 86 are public.

Notably, a group dubbed the Hydrogen Council met for the first time at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, earlier this year. The Hydrogen Council is comprised of 13 CEOs from energy companies and automakers including BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai Motor, Kawasaki, Royal Dutch Shell, The Linde Group, Toyota, Air Liquide, and FirstElement. The group's stated commitment is to reach the ambitious goals agreed to in the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. Members of the Hydrogen Council confirmed their ambition “to accelerate their significant investment in the development and commercialization of the hydrogen and fuel cell sectors.” That investment currently amounts to an estimated $1.63 billion per year.

Even Daimler, who recently committed heavily to BEVs by promising more than 10 fully electric vehicles in the passenger car segment by 2025, are still committed to FCEV’s: the GLC F-CELL debuted in September, and should be rolling on American roads by next year. Daimler AG's vice president of E-Drive Development, Jochen Hermann, called the benefits to the company "obvious," and pointed to "a long operating range and short refueling stops, as well as a broad spectrum of possible uses from passenger cars to urban buses."

"It’s not a technology issue," says Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, secretary general for Hydrogen Europe, a hydrogen-industry association. "It’s whether you believe that the infrastructure will take hold. That’s it."

THE HEAVY-DUTY ADVANTAGE

On a sunny, blue-sky afternoon this past April at the Port of San Pedro, in California, Toyota Executive Vice President Bob Carter stood at a podium, smiling widely. In the distance behind him, towering cranes had temporarily paused plucking cargo from a mile-long tanker.

"Toyota believes that hydrogen fuel cell technology has tremendous potential to become the powertrain of the future,” Carter said to the small crowd gathered before him. "From creating one of the world's first mass-market fuel cell vehicles, to introducing fuel cell buses in Japan, Toyota is a leader in expanding the use of versatile and scalable zero-emission technology." With exaggerated ceremony, he motioned to a gleaming tractor-trailer behind him with the words "Creating a Zero-Emission World" emblazoned across the side. 

"With Project Portal, we're proud to help explore the societal benefits of a true zero-emission heavy-duty truck platform,” Carter announced.

Toyota

Toyota Executive Vice President Bob Carter in front of Project Portal.

There was nothing cosmetically noteworthy about the heavy-duty truck save its immaculate wax job; it looked like any other Class 8 semi-trailer. But Project Portal, a proof-of-concept test vehicle, was remarkable not only because of its fuel-cell technology, but the fact that it represented the cooperation of several massive entities, including the California Air Resources Board (CARB), the California Energy Commission (CEC), and Toyota Motor Corporation. All involved hoped Project Portal would become a dominant force in zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles, and therefore revolutionize how ports across the world function.

"We have to find a way to make these vehicles cleaner, to make the whole system cleaner,” says Mary Nichols, CARB's chairwoman since 2007, and a position she held previously between 1979 and 1983. In the world of green energy, Nichols is a rock star. In 2013, she was listed at number 68 on TIME Magazine's annual list of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. What Nichols says is more than simple speculation—often, it becomes policy.

"This one truck represents a really important step, because it’s the first time that we’ve seen a Class 8—the biggest, heaviest trucks at the port, that haul big containers from the port to the rail yard—zero-emission vehicle put out by a major manufacturer," she added. "Having Toyota put their name on this vehicle and stand behind it means a lot."

While Toyota had already developed the aforementioned FCEV buses currently operating in Japan, the demands placed on work vehicles like the Project Portal truck will be much greater: Project Portal has a hauling capacity around 80,000 pounds, with an estimated driving range of more than 200 miles. The FCEV semi, outfitted with dual fuel cell stacks plucked from the Mirai, plus a 12-kWh battery and two serial electric motors generating 670 horsepower and a tremendous 1,325 pound-feet of torque, was developed in Toyota's Research and Development center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the course of two years—an accelerated schedule considering the average consumer vehicle enjoys a development lifecycle of four years or more.

"They have to know what tweaks will be needed—not only to the technology, but also to pricing, availability of fuel, all of that," Nichols says. "Then, at that point they will be ready to go bigger." Asked about the time frame necessary to scale up from a single test vehicle to the type of numbers that will have an impact, Nichols is cautiously optimistic.

"I don’t think it’s going to be a question of [growing from] one to five to ten vehicles; it could be a one-to-500, but they first have to gain that information," she says. "Hopefully it’s sooner than five years, but could be more than a year just to look at all the different operating conditions. We’re watching eagerly.”

THE AIR WE BREATHE

While much of the conversation about electric-vehicle adoption focuses on consumer vehicles, heavy-duty machinery contributes considerably to the emissions problem. The Port of Los Angeles, the nation's largest container port, has 16,000 trucks working daily to move up to 42,000 units. Goldstein, of Energy Independence Now, claims that "the 710 Freeway leading from the Port of Los Angeles is the most polluted corridor in the nation." The significant carbon footprint of a typical port is one reason Toyota focused on a harbor drayage vehicle like Project Portal.

While the current federal administration is openly hostile to the concept of climate change—the Environmental Protection Agency, now headed by noted global warming skeptic Scott Pruitt, removed its own climate-change website in April, and in October muzzled its own scientists from presenting on the matter at a conference in Rhode Island—there is no arguing the adverse health effects of air pollution. A study by the American Lung Association (ALA) suggests that transitioning America’s commercial and consumer vehicle fleets to majority-ZEV by 2050 would provide tens of billions of dollars in health-related savings; in the 10 states that have implemented ZEVs, the ALA estimates $20.5 billion in annual health savings from fewer asthma attacks, fewer lost work days, and fewer premature deaths, heart attacks, and emergency room visits.

While battery-electric technology cannot yet make the leap from commuter cars to work trucks, it's easier to diversify the FCEV powertrain in a semi truck like Project Portal for other heavy-duty uses like construction equipment, earth-movers, tractors, and more. Craig Scott, Toyota's National Manager for the Advanced Technologies Group, explained the potential to adapt Project Portal's powertrain like this: "[A semi truck] is the hardest to do, so if you can do this, anything below it—I’m not going to say it’s a piece of cake, but it’ll be easier.”

The plan is for Project Portal to gather real-world data in various applications, from hauling cargo within the port to heading out to the rail yard and distribution centers. The everyday conditions it will face are sizable; pointing to a high, arching structure behind him, Scott notes that "this truck has to get over that bridge while keeping a steady speed of 60 mph."

It begs the question: If hydrogen-powered tractor-trailers that can haul 40 tons of cargo are viable now, why aren’t commuter-class FCEV’s being shelled out in showrooms alongside Toyota Camrys?

AN EAST-WEST COOPERATION

In January, two of the world’s largest automakers, General Motors and Honda, announced that they had agreed to build an $85 billion fuel cell manufacturing plant outside Detroit. The joint venture will allow the two automotive giants to not only share intellectual property, patents, and R&D expenses, but also leverage economies of scale to reduce fuel-cell development and manufacturing costs. For Alan Adler, manager of GM Advanced Technology Communication, the announcement signaled hydrogen's staying power.

"More than just the financial investment that GM and Honda are making in the mass production of fuel cells, I think more significant is that it truly takes away the idea that fuel cells are a science project, that they’re something for science fairs and that they’re always 10 years away,” Adler says. "This is a one-company approach where both GM and Honda put the [intellectual property] together, and make the best possible fuel cell system that they can.”

(The GM-Honda pairing is not unique: in 2013, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company, and Nissan signed a three-way agreement for the joint development of a common fuel-cell system. Mercedes-Benz’s GLC FUEL CELL is fruit from this alliance, although neither Ford nor Nissan have announced a production FCEV.)

The joint venture signed in January is the outcome of a “cooperative work agreement” the two companies made in 2013. Honda keeps people in Pontiac, Michigan, and GM sends engineers to Japan. Adler says the relationship allows the companies to build off one another.

“We leapfrog each other,” Adler says. “If Honda is doing something particularly well we’re able to grab onto that, and if we’re doing something particularly well they can grab onto it. So it’s been a collaboration that started conceptually, and then moved towards always the goal of building the next-generation system that would be smaller, lighter in mass, and more powerful than systems that are out there today.”

Both manufacturers have pioneered their own fuel cell technologies for decades. GM’s work with FCEVs actually dates back 50 years, to a concept vehicle called the “Electro Van,” an experiment born from a technology transfer with NASA's Apollo program. More recently, GM continues to iterate a system that emerged from a fuel cell-powered Chevy Equinox in 2007; the Chevy Colorado ZH2 military vehicle was a more recent application of that "Project Driveway." Built on the architecture of the Colorado ZR2, the ZH2’s fuel cell powertrain has several military advantages, including near-silent operation, lower heat signatures than ICE vehicles, no visible emissions, high wheel torque, and the ability to generate about two gallons of potable water per hour—a handy byproduct in arid regions where water may be scarce. The ZH2 also features an Exportable Power Take-Off unit (EPTO) that allows the truck’s fuel cell to provide power away from the vehicle, such as in remote locations where electric power may otherwise be unavailable. This year, Chevy introduced its successor to the ZH2, the Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure (SURUS), which boasts all the benefits of the ZH2 but is built on a highly modular platform that offers robust power-generating capabilities and can be operated either manned or remotely. The vehicle's ability to act as mobile hospital and power-generation unit could also have profound benefits for humanitarian applications, such as during the rescue and relief efforts for the recently devastated island of Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, Honda was the first automaker to put a FCEV in hands of customers, when in 2002 they delivered five FCX fuel cell vehicles to Los Angeles. In 2006, about 200 prototypes of what would become the FCX Clarity were delivered to retail customers. Today, the mass-produced Clarity FCEV has the longest range of any zero-emissions vehicle in the world, with an EPA-estimated range of 366 miles. 

“That program has literally transitioned on a stair-step approach from tens of cars with that first FCX, to hundreds of cars with the FCX Clarity, to thousands of cars with this latest generation,” says Steve Ellis, Manager of Honda Fuel Cell Vehicles. “So you can see that this is a continuum of advancement.”

Such continuous development also allowed for a further downsizing of the powertrain. For the first time ever, an OEM has packaged the entire fuel cell powertrain, including the fuel cell stack, electric drive motor, transaxle, and power control assembly, into a single platform roughly equal in volume to a V-6 engine—specifically, the 3.5-liter V-6 found in the Honda Odyssey and Pilot. This opens up the fuel cell package to a wide variety of applications, most significantly in the ever-popular SUV segment. Those vehicles are too large to run for any considerable distance on battery power alone. Imagining a near future with a more robust H2 refueling infrastructure, where Americans could keep their gargantuan vehicles while still registering as zero-emission, one can envision a growing H2 demand—especially if oil prices rise while hydrogen continues to dip cheaper.

BEYOND THE CAR

For some consumers, the real-world usability of FCEVs remains a question. We spent considerable time in the three major FCEVs from Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai, and can report they do not feel like machines transported from the future. Rather, they feel as normal as any hybrid. Thanks to torque-y electric powertrains, the vehicles each offer a surprisingly sporty drive, and hint at the performance potential of FCEVs. To that end, there’s even a limited-production FCEV supercar in the works from Pininfarina called the H2 Speed, which claims a 186-mph top speed, a 0-62 mph clip of just 3.4 seconds, and a $2.5-million price tag.

The refueling experience is painless, almost identical to using a gasoline or diesel station and nearly as quick. The Clarity seats five people comfortably, and you will soon be able to purchase a true fuel cell SUV from either Mercedes or Hyundai. Nor are they prohibitively expensive: the Clarity can be leased for as little as $269 a month, the Mirai for $349. There is nothing conceptual or esoteric about these vehicles. They are very much real-world machines.

Mallory Short / Honda / Hyundai / Toyota

Beyond production cars, numerous concepts have been unveiled from major manufacturers including the Audi h-tron Quattro, Nissan’s TeRRA SUV, and a hydrogen-powered Lexus LF-LC. But the use cases for fuel cells go beyond commuter vehicles, supercars, and even semis like Toyota’s Project Portal. As mentioned, the military applications of hydrogen power and FCEVs are robust—and not just for trucks. The Navy recently unveiled an Unmanned Undersea Vehicle (UUV) powered by a GM fuel cell, which is currently in pool testing and has already logged more than 1,000 hours underwater. Like their landlubber cousins, these underwater drones are very quiet, with low heat signatures, and are able to be submerged longer than ICE-powered drones.

“The number of applications for fuel cells at GM go way, way beyond just passenger vehicles,” Adler says. “We’re living with what we’re calling a ‘Land, Sea, Air’ strategy.”

This April, tech behemoth Amazon signed a deal with a company called Plug Power to purchase a suite of hydrogen-powered forklifts and corresponding supplies for its shipping warehouses. The deal starts with a $70 million purchase of Plug Power equipment, but commits $600 million, including the acquisition of 55 million Plug Power shares, in the coming years. There are 1.5 million forklifts in the US and six million worldwide, meaning the market is large enough to make a hydrogen transition profitable. Moreover, H2's quick refueling benefits make fuel-cell forklifts much more useful than battery-powered units that require hours to charge, and zero-emission vehicles are ideal for indoor warehouses.

And in October, Toyota announced yet another FCEV concept, the oddly named Fine-Comfort Ride, which is scheduled to be unveiled at the Tokyo Motor Show and boasts electric motors at each wheel, a futuristic interior, and a whopping 621 miles of claimed range from its unidentified next-generation hydrogen powertrain. One writer covering the Fine-Comfort Ride noted that without "measurable growth in the numbers and geographic locations of hydrogen filling stations, Toyota may soon face some tough questions about its lack of focus on battery-electric cars in the U.S., plug-in hybrids notwithstanding," once again resurfacing the notion that the contest between FCEVs and BEVs is a zero-sum game.

BATTLE OF THE ELECTRICS

While the benefits of hydrogen-powered vehicles are often discussed in contrast to BEVs, nearly every FCEV proponent with whom we spoke felt that battery-powered electric vehicles are an essential mechanism in the movement toward zero-emission transportation. Development of BEV and FCEV vehicles often happens concurrently, because the electric drivetrain of both is essentially the same—the main difference being that fuel cells can recharge the battery packs, while BEVs need to plug into an external power source to recharge. As technological advancements occur with BEVs, it benefits FCEV performance as well. As Ford writes on its website: “All of our efforts to improve high-voltage electronics, electric motors, regenerative braking and battery technology on BEVs, HEVs and PHEVs can be applicable to FCEVs, if and when these vehicles become commercially viable.”

Plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles (PHEVs), like FCEVs, use batteries to power an electric powertrain and a generator to recharge that battery on the go—a PHEV’s generator uses petroleum instead of hydrogen, that’s the main difference. Many automakers therefore see PHEVs simply as a placeholder until hydrogen infrastructure is in place.

“We expect that battery-electric vehicles and fuel cell-electric vehicles will co-exist in the future,” Merten Jung, BMW’s head of fuel cell development, told Digital Trends last year, “and plug-in hybrids are a simply a temporary solution until we get to that point.”

Elon Musk, founder and CEO of luxury-BEV manufacturer Tesla, is a notorious hydrogen skeptic, having called FCEVs “incredibly dumb” and “bullshit” in the past. His incentive to disparage the technology aside—Musk is the head of the world’s most valuable battery-electric vehicle company, after all—Nikola Motors CEO Trevor Milton says that “his concerns don’t pass the smell test.” Noting that most of the electricity that fuels Tesla’s battery packs come from coal and other non-renewable sources, Milton has little time for what he sees as Musk’s hypocrisy. “One day Musk will have to bite his tongue, and have to turn around and start building a hydrogen truck,” Milton says. “Because his electric truck will not be able to compete with a hydrogen truck.”

Hydrogen Europe’s Chatzimarkakis, a former member of the European Parliament, is a firm believer in both BEVs and FCEVs. But he sees the division between the two almost like a religious war, where the dogmatic belief in battery-electric vehicles has become so indoctrinated as to make many policy-makers blind to other viable options.

“We need to make it clear in the definition of 'electric mobility' in any government plan, that fuel cells are included,” Chatzimarkakis says. “We have to advertise more actively—not only towards policy makers—that fuel cells are under the umbrella of e-mobility.” Chatzimarkakis argues that it will be large work vehicles that will win over doubters. 

"Even strong BEV believers understand the difficulties in going heavy and wide-range with batteries,” he says.

That’s why many automakers see BEV and FCEV technologies as complimentary instead of opposing. For GM, Honda, Hyundai, Toyota, and Daimler, BEV powertrain development works in concert with FCEV development, meaning more powertrain options to fit numerous applications. “We don’t want to think of it as an either/or proposition; we prefer to think of it as an ‘and,’“ says GM’s Adler. “It's actually one of our key messages.”

2020 VISION

Mallory Short / The Drive

The year 2020 is a common target date in the world of H2. In that year, Japan will usher in its Hydrogen Society at the Summer Olympics; Honda and GM will power up the joint-venture manufacturing plant in Michigan; and the Scandinavian Hydrogen Highway Partnership will have crested 50 refueling stations, California its 80th, and Germany will be cutting the ribbon on its 100th H2 location.

But the widespread acceptance of H2 is far from a slam dunk. Lack of FCEV sales, withering public support, and retrograde environmental policies could all derail the momentum the burgeoning hydrogen industry has accumulated, despite the fuel's promise. 

There's a long-running joke about H2 technology: "Hydrogen is the future—and it always will be." In just over two years' time, we might finally know whether our hydrogen future has finally arrived in the present.