A new three-way collaboration to accelerate commercialization of fuel cell technology was announced on Monday in Yokohama Japan. The alliance brings together Daimler, Ford and Nissan and has the goal of launching the world's first affordable, mass-market fuel cell electric vehicles as early as 2017. This announcement follows last weeks tie-up between Toyota and BMW that includes fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) development.
An FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) is an electric vehicle where a fuel cell provides the electricity to keep a small battery pack charged to power the vehicle. Fuel cells run on hydrogen and produce water vapor as the only exhaust, making FCEV's look like a great solution to the greenhouse gas implications of fossil fuel vehicles. What most skip over in this picture is that the majority of industrial hydrogen is extracted from natural gas, rather than from sunlight and water, which tarnishes the fuel cell clean image.
The companies, Daimler, Ford and Nissan, state their goal in collaborating is to develop a common fuel cell electric vehicle system while sharing costs between the companies. The primary result is expected to be a common fuel cell stack and fuel cell system, which each of the three companies will integrate into their own vehicles. The three companies are to pony up equal investments, and aim to develop commonality, leveraging volume production, to tap into economies in scale.
The Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle was a hot topic ten years or so ago ("hydrogen highway" anyone?), but, to paraphrase one of the speakers in Who Killed The Electric Car quipped, fuel cell vehicles have been 5-10 years away for the last 20 years. This announcement may not be anything more than another promise that will go unfulfilled as have all the previous fuel cell vehicle announcements. However, the big problem with fuel cell vehicles is their high cost, and an effort to share costs and get to mass production could be the breakthrough for fuel cell vehicles to be anything more than small production run experiments.
Another issue with fuel cell vehicles is the refueling infrastructure that is essentially non-existent. The press release issued by the three companies contains a nod to this fact by saying "The collaboration sends a clear signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry to encourage further development of hydrogen refueling stations and other infrastructure necessary to allow the vehicles to be mass-marketed."
The refueling infrastructure for all electric vehicles is one of their adoption hurdles, but the refueling infrastructure is even worse for fuel cell vehicles. An all electric vehicle can be plugged into any power outlet, in a pinch, but where do you find pure hydrogen?
In September, Nissan showed a fuel cell powered SUV at the Paris Auto Show. In April, AC Transit (an SF Bay Area transit agency) installed a solar panel powered hydrogen refueling system for hydrogen fuel cell busses. In December 2011, GM and BMW signed a collaboration agreement on fuel cell technology.
“Fuel cell electric vehicles are the obvious next step to complement today's battery electric vehicles as our industry embraces more sustainable transportation,” said Mitsuhiko Yamashita, Member of the Board of Directors and Executive Vice President of Nissan Motor Co., Ltd., supervising Research and Development. “We look forward to a future where we can answer many customer needs by adding FCEVs on top of battery EVs within the zero-emission lineup.”
“We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future. Thanks to the high commitment of all three partners we can put fuel cell e-mobility on a broader basis. This means with this cooperation we will make this technology available for many customers around the globe,” said Prof. Thomas Weber, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, Group Research & Mercedes-Benz Cars Development.
“Working together will significantly help speed this technology to market at a more affordable cost to our customers,” said Raj Nair, group vice president, Global Product Development, Ford Motor Company. “We will all benefit from this relationship as the resulting solution will be better than any one company working alone.”