Fuel Cell Vehicles Are Nearly Here

Over the past year or so, we have had the chance to drive a number of fuel cell-powered vehicles. Each has been a remarkable motorcar, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about them is how unremarkable they are to drive. In our experience, their behavior is almost uncannily like conventional cars, which means two things: one, that fuel cell vehicles are not inherently quirky, and two, that the engineers did a good job developing systems so the electric drive systems mimic conventional gasoline-powered drivetrain operation. We can’t imagine that is an easy task since, unlike the typical gasoline or diesel automobile engine, the fuel cell doesn't use combustion to create power. Instead, it uses a simple chemical reaction to make electricity, which can then be either used to power an electric motor (or motors) and electronic features or stored in batteries for future use.

What powers a fuel cell? As we said, two of the most abundant elements on the globe: hydrogen and oxygen. It is stuff that, at first glance at least, seems pretty easy to come by, and the bonus is that when the chemical reaction takes place, the only byproduct is a little H2O. All the residue created by current internal combustion engines -- you know, the particulates, nitrous oxides and carbon monoxide that give environmentalists nightmares -- just vanish with the use of fuel cells. 

As exciting as all this sounds, fuel cell-powered vehicles do have some hurdles to jump before they end up in your garage. As a study by Roland Berger Strategy Consultants noted, if fuel cell vehicles are to have significant long-term impact in the auto industry, automakers and suppliers must successfully address 12 commercialization challenges that loom over the auto fuel cell industry.

According to the study, the most difficult among the dozen challenges are low-cost infrastructure, vehicle range and power density of the fuel. The infrastructure question is especially vexing. The current gasoline fuel-supply infrastructure is both efficient and convenient, though consumers have grumbled about sky-high gasoline prices. Conceiving and then building a new fuel-delivery infrastructure that could transport, store and dispense highly volatile hydrogen, which is a gas in normal ambient temperatures, is a huge hurdle. Another big hurdle is that, while abundant, hydrogen rarely occurs in nature in its pristine state. Instead, it is usually part of a compound like water or hydrocarbon. Separating hydrogen for use as fuel takes effort and energy that must be factored into the overall equation.

Despite the hurdles, the study predicted a bright future for fuel cells. In the automotive realm, the think tank says vehicle-makers' commitment is strong and predicts that automakers and others will invest billions to develop and try to commercialize workable, low-cost fuel cell technology. Despite uncertainties concerning government regulations, technology implementation and customer acceptance, automakers remain steadfast in their pursuit of commercially viable fuel cell vehicles.