A world of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, long touted as an alternative to gasoline vehicles, sounds far-fetched. Then again, hybrid electric technology once seemed unlikely, too. Toyota, the car company behind the Prius—the vehicle that brought hybrids to the mainstream—thinks it can do the same sort of mainstreaming for fuel cell vehicles with its new FCV concept car, expected to be released in 2015.
Toyota's work on hydrogen fuel cells, which generate electricity out of hydrogen and oxygen, has emerged in fits and starts. From the beginning, the company built its own fuel cell stacks, borrowing technology from its hybrid electric vehicles. By 1996, Toyota showed off its first fuel cell hybrid vehicle. But broader availability was still far in the future. "I think if you asked anyone in the '90s, creeping into the early 2000s, it was hard to imagine a path forward to make a fuel cell vehicle both affordable and reliable," says Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager of advanced technologies.
It has only been recently that the technology became cheap and durable enough to potentially work in a mass market car (early prototypes cost over $1 million, compared to under $100,000 for the FCV). Still, many hurdles remain.
Toyota will have to work hard over the next few years to combat negative perceptions of fuel cell vehicles. Tesla's Elon Musk has publicly shrugged off the technology, saying in a recent speech, "Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas. You know, it's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars."
Scott acknowledges that the company will need to engage in plenty of consumer education: "For the next two years, we'll be trying our hardest to show people that you don't need to worry, this isn't the '40s, and the car's not the Hindenburg." In addition to vehicle testing in extreme heat and cold, Toyota has taken some extra precautions with the FCV, shooting its fuel cell tanks repeatedly with bullets to try to puncture them, and dropping the car from multiple stories onto a hard, flat surface. "It survived, and we didn't have any serious issues," says Scott.
Fuel cell vehicles do offer some advantages to a mass market audience compared to plug-in hybrids, which take a long time to charge (even Tesla's Supercharger takes 20 minutes to recharge the battery). Filling up a fuel cell vehicle with hydrogen is similar to filling up a regular vehicle with gas—it takes just a couple minutes. And unlike gasoline-powered cars, Toyota says that its FCV can go for 310 miles without a fill-up.
The biggest challenge may be growing a hydrogen filling station infrastructure, which is today much smaller than the EV infrastructure (which is itself much smaller than the gas station infrastructure). Customers in major metropolitan areas won't have trouble finding filling stations, but long-distance trips could be difficult. "If you live in Los Angeles or you live in San Francisco, you're probably going to be fine. But if you want to go to Las Vegas, the first couple years you're probably going to have a hard time doing that," explains Scott. "As the vehicle volumes increase, stations will come commensurate with that."
It may help that Toyota won't be alone in its push for expansion of the hydrogen filling station infrastructure. Other automakers, including Honda and Hyundai, also plan to roll out fuel cell vehicles in the near future.