Sep 5 2014
Imagine a vehicle that gets twice the combined MPG of equivalent gas models and whose only emissions are water vapor. Seems too good to be true, right? However, vehicles like the one described above are already available in the United States... well, only with very limited availability and only in one state.
Fuel cell vehicles, also known as FCVs, are an exciting emerging technology that use compressed hydrogen gas to generate electricity which powers a vehicles electric motor. Fuel cell vehicles were first introduced in the US market with the release of the 2010 Honda FCX Clarity. Other popular auto manufacturers such as Mercedes, Hyundai and Toyota have either recently released an FCV model or have a prototype pending release.
You may be wondering why fuel cell vehicles aren't more widely available given the Eco-friendly, fuel efficient advantages mentioned above. In this article, I’ve identified the six major challenges that still need to be overcome before FCVs will become more wide-spread and as popular as passenger vehicles.
For those of you that haven’t considered a hybrid vehicle because of the cost, fuel cell vehicles will most definitely be out of the picture. Many of the fuel cell components involved, such as platinum catalysts, are very expensive to manufacture and bump up the price of these vehicles far above the average consumer's budget.
For example, the original production cost of the Honda FCX Clarity was one million dollars. The good news is that they have since dropped by over 85 percent, however this still leaves the cost to manufacture them above $100,000. Currently the FCX Clarity can only be leased, with payments of $600 per month for three years (insurance, maintenance, and fuel included). The Hyundai Tucson and Mercedes F-Cell are also only available for lease.
According to an article from technologyreview.com, Toyota plans to be the first manufacturer that offers a fuel cell vehicle for sale in 2015. The cost will be between $50,000-$100,000, which is still quite expensive but cheaper than currently available fuel cell models. GM intends to release a fuel cell vehicle for sale by 2020, when they anticipate production costs will be much less and infrastructure will have expanded beyond Southern California (discussed later in the article).
In order for fuel cell vehicles to become a popular option for purchase, they would not only need to be more affordable, but would have to outlive their payment plans, which brings me to my next point.
Fuel cell vehicles currently have a much shorter life expectancy than traditional gasoline and diesel vehicles. According to fueleconomy.gov, FCV life expectancy has increased significantly to 75,000 miles but is still 125,000 miles shy of the average traditional vehicle life expectancy (200,000 miles), according to TIME.
For leasing purposes, a 75,000 mile life expectancy for the fuel cell system isn’t a deal breaker, since most drivers won’t come close to driving that many miles over the course of a three year lease. However, when FCVs become an option to buy, they’ll have to be capable of running for many more miles before competing with traditional vehicles.
Fuel cell vehicles take under ten minutes to refuel, though a tow truck may be required to access the nearest pump. Unless you live in Southern California, finding a public hydrogen fueling station is almost impossible with only two other states in the country having even one of these public stations.
The map below shows all the current public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S. to date, compliments of fueleconomy.gov. Not a lot of choices.....
Until the hydrogen infrastructure develops in other states, FCVs are only available to consumers in Southern California.
Building hydrogen fueling stations is very expensive and requires nearby production plants with efficient fuel transport to be cost effective. According to Alternative Fuels Data Center, the U.S. Department of Energy has launched a “public-private partnership with fuel cell electric vehicle original equipment manufacturers,” called H2USA, to advance hydrogen infrastructure for consumers.
Fuel cell technology is not quite as clean as manufacturers and various green initiatives are making it out to be.
Yes, it is true that fuel cell vehicles produce zero tailpipe emissions... but there’s a catch. Though FCVs are completely clean, the production of hydrogen is not. Unless hydrogen is produced by renewable energy sources such as solar or wind energy, the by-product of green house gases, or GHGs, is unavoidable. Still fuel cell technology is ultimately much cleaner than the tailpipe emissions from conventional vehicles. Fueleconomy.gov states that “conventional gasoline vehicles generate roughly 2-12 times more GHGs per mile than fuel cell vehicles.”
Considerably larger storage tanks are needed for a driving range comparable to gasoline vehicles, since according to fueleconomy.gov, “hydrogen gas contains only a third of the energy per volume gasoline does.” Unfortunately, the larger storage tank is heavier and takes up a lot more passenger/cargo space than a traditional fuel tank. This is especially problematic for the smaller passenger vehicles that in the future fuel cell technology would likely be used in. Auto manufacturers will have to find a way to provide driving range consistency among vehicle models without severely compromising the weight and cargo capacity of the vehicle.
When left in a parked car, hydrogen warms up, the gas expands, and then escapes the fuel tank. Not only does hydrogen get wasted when left unused for periods of time, but it's also potentially very dangerous as a highly flammable gas - more so than gasoline. Slow leaks are not too much of a concern for safety, since hydrogen rises and will most likely escape before further harm is caused. However, in the event of an accident resulting in a ruptured tank, the hydrogen will leak out at much quicker pace and easily catch flames upon contact with oxygen from the air. These flames produced are nearly invisible and very difficult to avoid or fight off if the vehicle hasn't exploded already.
Fuel cell vehicles are an impressive technology that I can't help but be excited about. Though auto manufacturers and various green initiatives have many obstacles to overcome, they could potentially thrive in the US market once they've gotten past them. As we've seen with hybrid technology and other vehicle technologies, most challenges presented are not impossible to solve and are certainly worth working towards for the benefits they offer.
Here's a brief recap of the major challenges with fuel cell technology
I believe that over time as manufacturers find cheaper ways of producing these vehicles and more infrastructures are built in response, it's likely that we will see more and more fuel cell vehicles on the road that are affordable to own. What do you think? Please share with us in the comments section below.
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