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Can fuel-cell cars take on the electrics?

Business Driver

Published June 10, 2014

Move over EVs, there’s a new tree-hugger in town

I smell an automotive smackdown brewing.

This month, Hyundai will launch its fuel-cell car in California, marking the first entry of this non-internal-combustion variant in the North American public domain.

The model in question is a Tucson, equipped with hydrogen-driven technology the company has developed over the past 14 years.

Hyundai may be the first out of the door with a mass-market fuel-cell vehicle but other Asian auto makers seem to be more serious about the technology.

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How serious? Earlier this year, Toyota broke off its relationship with EV outlier Tesla surrounding battery technology development, signaling the end of the former’s love affair with all cars electric.

The Japanese automaker is increasingly turning to fuel-cell cars as its top emissions-free pick of the future, and is slated to introduce about 1,500 on-road models of its much-publicized FCV concept across Japan, U.S. and Europe in 2015.

Honda’s on board as well, with similar plans for its FCX Clarity next year.

Many think the moves are gimmicky, largely made to shift attention away from the likes of Tesla, which despite high prices and the luxury tag, managed to bring the EV front and centre.

All the above makers dropped the ball on EVs. Plugged versions of the Honda Fit and Toyota RAV4 were dead on arrival. In fact, Toyota is expected to end production of the latter by the end of this year.

These companies therefore want to change the conversation in order to show themselves as being ahead of the curve — that has been a pretty common response to the fuel-cell strategy.

After all, hydrogen-powered vehicles are far more expensive than EVs. No definite pricing is available, and claims vary, but the Honda and Toyota fuel-cell models are expected to cost anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. Chances are they will be closer to the upper mark.

The cost of building charging stations for these cars isn’t looking too pretty, either. Many have balked at EV charging stations, which typically range from $5,000 to $20,000.

But Hydrogen stations can cost anywhere from $500,000 to $2 million. So, home fuelling may never happen, unless you are in the hallowed 1 per cent.

No doubt governments are not too enthusiastic. Former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had promised 100 such stations in the state by 2010. Today, there are only nine and new funding could potentially take the total up to 54 over the next few years, with high concentration in the ultra-progressive, ultra-tech Bay Area.

In-vehicle fuel-cell technology — which uses hydrogen to produce electricity for power instead of lithium-ion batteries — is also deemed a little risky. Hydrogen tank explosions can be extremely dangerous.

Although both Toyota and Honda assure that the technology is failsafe, it would be hard to dispel the negative air around these types of vehicles.

Really, the only thing going for hydrogen vehicles is their range. With the notable exception of Tesla (which is closer to a fuel-cell car in pricing), most EVs have the paltry capability of going about 200 to 250 kilometres on a single charge. Hydrogen cars can go about 500 to 600 km.

Furthermore, these vehicles also have zero tailpipe emissions, producing only water vapour from its exhaust.

So who’s going to win the race?

No doubt EVs have an upper hand right now. Volumes are slowly growing, infrastructure is being put in place, and Tesla’s promised battery development blitz could put an end to range anxiety at a far more affordable cost.

Then there’s the question of public awareness. Most people now understand the benefits of EVs — many would probably buy one if they were a little cheaper and more attractive.

On the flip side, hydrogen cars are an unknown, untested quantity.

But remember one thing: the technology is being championed by an automaker that bucked all market trends when it introduced its hybrid Prius in the 1990s and have turned it into a 3-million-selling model in two decades.

Toyota is not making any definite projections, but it has promised a sub-$50,000 model by 2020, and is working with California and hydrogen provider First Element to get an infrastructure going in the state.

The Japanese government is also throwing its weight behind fuel-cell cars, easing regulations and import-export duties for quicker adoption.

So, in the end, EVs may have it good for the short term but, in the far future, hydrogen cars may still have a fighting chance.

As far as I am concerned, may the best car win!

Kumar Saha is a Toronto-based automotive analyst with the global research firm Frost & Sullivan. Email wheels@thestar.ca.

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