Glimpses into the future of clean vehicles are already here – they’re just not evenly distributed: Automakers have in recent years launched a multitude of clean(er) vehicle technology platforms ranging from increasingly efficient traditional gas guzzling vehicles to electric vehicles (EVs), to hybrids and fuel cell vehicles (FCVs).
Beyond the spread of varying vehicle platforms, the prevalence of an impressive array of automotive innovation technologies in the market and on the test beds are discretely revolutionizing our traditional perception of vehicles.
Examples include self-driving car systems, body panels that can store energy as complementary to the currently heavy batteries, external airbags to protect not only passengers but the vehicle, augmented reality dashboard to overlay information on top of what the driver sees, vehicles that are essentially computers on wheels that can communicate with other vehicles, and infrastructure alike to vastly improve safety.
So how will the future of clean vehicles be like in light of such intensity of innovations and technological variety? There is no single answer to that question, yet we do get glimpses of the future clean transportation technologies that can truly provide the world with zero emission vehicles. When zooming in on one of the world’s innovation hotspots like California, one answer to the future of clean transportation is: the fuel cell vehicle (FCV).
Are fuel cell vehicles (and the hydrogen economy) coming of age?
“Hydrogen is used in so many things, and we’re not aware of it,” said Chris White, the optimistic communications director at the California Fuel Cell Partnership during a recent conference held by the California Hydrogen Business Council in Sacramento. And that is an interesting observation exactly because hydrogen is applied in many processes and products. The use of hydrogen fuel cells range from being used as a back-up power source sending rockets into space to making toothpaste. However, as new FCVs hit the market the family car is now also being driven by hydrogen.
Essentially, FCVs are electric cars where the fuel cell is the onboard “engine” driven by e.g. pressurized hydrogen that reacts with a catalyst (today it is platinum based but research is ongoing for low cost non-platinum catalysts). FCVs offer high energy efficiency with ranges, they are extremely versatile, and combine the traditional long cruising range (range of 300 miles) with a short fueling time (less than 5 minutes) that people are used to. In other words, FCVs is the only electric vehicle that can truly replicate the current customer experience.
As a first mover, Hyundai made a California launch of the limited edition lease of one thousand Tucson Fuel Cell SUVs in 2014. Toyota and Honda are launching their FCVs during 2015 and 2016 showing their long term commitment to the fuel cell technology. Similarly Ford, Daimler and Nissan decided to join forces in 2013 to accelerate the development and launch of FCVs in the next few years.
Though the cost of fuel cells have been reduced by 70% over the past decade, FCVs are still unable to compete head on with traditional cars which means the volume of these vehicles on the roads is still nascent. The aim of the cross-collaboration amongst automakers is exactly to combine resources by working together to develop a hydrogen fuel cell that can be installed within their respective vehicle platforms. Boosting these positive “collaborative” behaviors amongst automakers are efforts like Toyota’s announcement of opening over 5,500 hydrogen related patents to royalty-free public use.
In other words, the industry is jointly addressing the cost of a fuel cell which is still costly.
Infrastructure challenges: The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones
Beyond the cost issues where can a hydrogen FCV be filled up? Hydrogen infrastructure- or lack thereof – is indeed a major hesitation for consumers to actually be willing to buy a FCV in the first place. As such this represent a common “chicken and the egg” problem when introducing new technologies.
A concerted effort is therefore needed, not only amongst automakers but also in conjunction with government regulators, hydrogen providers and academia to address challenges for technology adoption.
The good news is that California approved funding of up to $250 million to build 68 hydrogen fuelling stations by 2017 and at least 100 hydrogen by 2020. California has a dozen or so “hydrogen pump stations” and many more have been awarded and under construction. UC Davis estimates that when a critical mass of 50.000 or more FCVs has been reached by 2020 the hydrogen infrastructure would be able to become sustainable.
While it is important to speed up the development of new clean transportation technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, one also has to address the fuel source of hydrogen. Truly sustainable clean transportation based on hydrogen FCVs cannot be only low-emission but has to look upstream in producing the currently natural gas derived hydrogen in a low-carbon way.
A lot of the hydrogen consumption today addresses demand in the petro-chemical industries, fertilizer and metal industries as well as processed food and household products. It therefore makes economic sense in these early times for hydrogen pump stations to get their hydrogen delivered to their dispenser by truck and thereby effectively be utilizing the existing industrial gas supply chain.
One way of making “clean” hydrogen is by utilizing increasing levels of biogas when extracting hydrogen from natural gas. This essentially creates a loop from turning waste into biogas derived hydrogen to be used in FCVs. Other technologies like electrolysis are processes whereby the increased levels of renewable electricity from wind and solar energy can be stored as hydrogen and thereby allowing transportability of fuel, turning it back into electricity through fuel cells to e.g. propel a vehicle.
Though the public discussion often ends up revolving around which particular technology will “win”, it is critical to recall that as we transition to a cleaner and “decarbonized” world there will be further diffusion of clean vehicle platforms. At times FCVs, EVs, hybrids etc. will compete and at other times be complimentary to each other. Only the future will eventually show which option(s) are fittest for survival but for now the hydrogen FCVs and infrastructure are turning into reality … albeit at a tortoise speed.
If you would like to know more on the nexus between clean energy technology, policy incentives and the contextual financial environment then feel free to contact Ali Mushtaq on mail or cell: 312-852-2224.