Not so long ago, fuel cells appeared to be headed toward the goal line. Early forecasts by manufacturers and analysts made it seem that hydrogen/electric vehicles were clearly coming, at least in modest numbers. Most major automakers have worked toward vehicles that ran on hydrogen fuel cells.
Many of the technological -- and marketing -- developments are ingenious, but real-world use still seems far off. Honda and GM are making dozens of fuel-cell vehicles available to selected consumers, but achieving mainstream status seems like a distant prospect.
Infrastructure is still the dominant obstacle
With pure electric cars, limited range is a foremost issue. Current fuel-cell vehicles can travel far enough on a full tank to make them workable. The issue is how that tank gets filled. Even if the vehicles are as dependable as promised, they need to be refueled regularly. Emphasis must be on unfettered consumer access to fuel. As a starting point, we need retail-like refueling stations, in precisely those areas where automakers will make vehicles available.
Fuel-cell vehicles on the road today are counted in mere dozens
Honda's FCX has been the only one in regular use, with the FCX Clarity now going into leasing. Chevrolet's Equinox is coming too, but also in small numbers. Other automakers' fuel-cell models, though impressive, remain experimental, brought out mainly for tests and presentations.
Costs are -- and will be -- astronomical
From the beginning, fuel-cell development has been a shockingly expensive undertaking. Early fuel-cell concept vehicles cost millions to build. Hydrogen can be affordable with current technology, says the California Fuel Cell Partnership: Equivalent to $3 to $6 per gallon of gasoline, from natural gas reforming or wind electrolysis.
The U.S. Department of Energy has a target for 2009, with fuel-stack durability allowing operation for the gasoline equivalent of $3 a gallon. That figure could drop toward $2 by 2015. Those figures sound enticing, but don't expect to see vehicles that function at such moderate cost at a dealership anytime soon.
Hydrogen production can cost plenty -- and may pollute, too
Both costs and emissions of plants that could produce hydrogen for fuel-cell vehicles need to be fully examined. If hydrogen plant pollution is excessive, that may offset the emissions reductions from the hydrogen-fueled fleet. Honda's headquarters has used a solar-panel installation to provide hydrogen for its FCX, but it's glacially slow at producing the gas. Honda admits that Home Energy Stations are still "years away from production." On-board production of hydrogen from liquid fuels, right in the vehicle, may eventually be the solution; but that's even further in the future.
High-pressure hydrogen presents safety concerns
If the thought of carrying a tank filled with hydrogen at 5,000 to 10,000 pounds per square inch gives you pause, hydrogen might not be the answer for you.
For fuel cells to fulfill their promise, major speed-up is needed
Today, some 85 million barrels of oil are consumed per day -- about one thousand every second. By 2030, unless demand drops significantly, the total may reach 120 million per day. Half of that oil is used for transportation. Today, too, only 12 percent of the world's people own cars. That's expected to reach 15 percent by 2020, and two-thirds of that growth is likely to be in emerging markets that consume relatively little petroleum now. Urgency is the byword. We simply cannot wait for hydrogen fuel cells to make a full foray into the marketplace.
That's half the story. Here's the other: