A path for fuel cell electric vehicles

The development of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) appears to be gaining momentum. Toyota Motor and Honda Motor have announced plans to start selling FCEVs in 2015. Hyundai Motor of South Korea also has a similar plan. The success of FCEVs will depend largely on whether carmakers can price them competitively and how widespread hydrogen stations become.

Conventional electric vehicles that rely on batteries are regarded as the mainstay of next-generation eco-friendly cars. But such cars cannot travel very far between charges compared to vehicles powered by internal combustion engines. Expectations for FCEVs are mounting since their travel distance will likely be similar to that of traditional vehicles. Since fuel cells use hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, FCEVs emit only water vapor.

The Abe administration regards the development of FCEVs as an important pillar of its economic growth strategy and the trade and industry ministry is considering ways to provide necessary support. But even if automakers succeed from a technological standpoint, they cannot expect FCEVs to be commercial success if their prices remain high. The prices must fall into a range of ¥5 million to ¥7 million per unit so that ordinary citizens can afford to buy them. The task will not be easy, however. For example, the hydrogen tanks used in FCEVs must be strong enough to stand a pressure of 350 or more atmospheres and they are currently very expensive to produce.

In addition, the construction of widespread network of hydrogen stations will be critical to expanding the use of FCEVs. A plan exists to build 100 such stations in large cities by 2015, when carmakers plan to start selling FCEVs, and 1,000 such stations by 2025. But the construction of hydrogen stations is currently hampered by strict regulations. For example, one rule states that gasoline stands and hydrogen stands must be at least six meters apart, making compliance very expensive in crowded cities.

Due to such regulations, it costs more than ¥500 million to build a hydrogen station in Japan. In Europe where regulations are less strict, the cost is said to be about ¥200 million. There is a plan to build 19 hydrogen stations in Japan this year, but even if this is accomplished the goal of building 100 by 2015 remains daunting.

For the time being, the government may need to provide subsidies to accelerate the construction of hydrogen stations. The government should also try to relax regulations where it is possible to do so without sacrificing safety.

  • Why are these still “plans”? Let’s get moving already! I want an FCV…NOW!!