Concerned about slow sales of electric cars and plug-in hybrids, automakers are increasingly betting the future of green cars on hydrogen fuel cell technology.
Even Toyota Motor Corp., maker of the popular Prius gas-electric hybrid, will use hydrogen instead of batteries to power its next generation of green vehicles.
“Today, Toyota actually favors fuel cells over other zero-emission vehicles, like pure battery electric vehicles,” said Craig Scott, the company’s national manager of advanced technologies. “We would like to be still selling cars when there’s no more gas. And no one is coming to our door asking us to build a new electric car.”
But even hydrogen’s most ardent proponents agree the technology faces enormous hurdles. Like electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are expensive. So is the infrastructure to refuel them.
Car companies have been slow to put hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the market in part because of the lack of fueling stations. Operators of fueling stations, in turn, won’t build more retail outlets unless they see more fuel cell car sales.
Dan Poppe is among the few early investors in hydrogen stations. Wearing a hard hat and coveralls at his Burbank hydrogen station, Poppe chews on the edges of his mustache and worries about his future.
“In 2004, we were told we’d have 10,000 cars on the road [in California] by 2009 — but it was more like 200 cars,” said Poppe, whose company, H2 Frontier, builds and operates stations in California. “Today, we still only have about 250. That’s not going to do it.”
Hydrogen fuel cell car makers and station operators like Poppe are subsidized by the state of California, which has set a goal of having 1.5 million zero-emission cars on the road by 2025. By the same year, the state wants 15% of all new cars sold to be zero-emission vehicles.
The category includes plug-in hybrids — which can travel a few miles on battery power alone before a gas engine kicks in — but it doesn’t include traditional hybrids, which sell at lower cost and in much higher volumes.
Automakers are still working on electric car technology, and sales of battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles are up 30% this year over 2013. Still, total sales for zero-emission vehicles represent less than 1% of all cars nationally.
They are more popular in California than anywhere else. The state’s drivers own 40% of the nation’s zero-emission vehicles, almost all of them plug-in hybrids and battery electric vehicles. With automakers still struggling to produce a mass-market electric car, fuel cells increasingly look like the ascendant platform. (continued…)
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