The debut of Toyota Motor Corp.’s fuel cell vehicle, about three years ago, captured the limelight and raised anticipation that FCVs would blossom. But they appear to be losing momentum as the world turns its attention toward electric vehicles.
With various nations working toward a future ban on conventional gasoline-powered vehicles, many automakers have announced plans to boost EV production in the coming years. But promotion of hydrogen-powered FCVs has been barely visible.
What are the latest developments in FCVs? Will they really take off? Which will become mainstream — EVs or FCVs? Here are some questions and answers about FCVs.
Why do automakers seem to be favoring EVs over FCVs?
EVs are easier to manufacture than FCVs, so promoting EVs lets automakers quickly show the world they are taking on climate change, said Koichi Oyama, senior manager of Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting Co. and a consultant to the auto industry.
The world has been under intense pressure to reduce carbon dioxide emission since the Paris accord at the COP21 in 2015.
Under the agreement, 196 countries aimed to hold the increase in global average temperatures to less than 2 degrees above pre-Industrial Revolution levels and pursue efforts to limit the increase to 1.5 degrees.
This has pushed automakers to speed up the transition from gasoline- and diesel-powered cars to EVs, FCVs or plug-in hybrid cars.
FCVs carry fuel cell stacks that use hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, which in turn powers the motor.
As a result, FCVs only emit water vapor while driving.
But more specialized parts are used for FCVs than EVs, which means their production requires more coordination between parts manufacturers and automakers.
EV production is straightforward, and can be achieved by just assembling simpler parts. Even nonautomakers, such as Dyson Ltd. and Apple Inc., are reportedly looking to produce EVs on their own.
“Although having cost-competitiveness and securing a supply chain is a different matter, EVs are technologically easy to make and many automakers already have plans for mass production,” said Oyama.
How are FCVs selling?
According to Toyota, as of October it has sold 4,500 units of the Mirai sedan globally since its debut in December 2014.
Hisashi Nakai, director of the technologies communication groups at Toyota, said the automaker aims to boost sales to 30,000 units annually in 2020.
Honda Motor Co. is the only other Japanese automaker selling an FCV model; its Clarity Fuel Cell, which debuted in March 2016.
The Tokyo-based firm said it had sold 181 units in Japan and 455 in the U.S. as of November.
“The figures are a little smaller than our initial estimation,” said Oyama.
In overseas markets, Mercedes-Benz recently announced that it plans to launch a plug-in fuel cell vehicle in 2019.
What else is hampering the spread of FCVs?
Unlike electricity networks that have already been spread thoroughly in many countries, FCVs need a whole new charging station infrastructure to supply hydrogen.
Japan had 91 hydrogen filling stations in operation as of October, and the government aims to increase that number to 320 by fiscal 2025.
But Japan already has more than 20,000 power charging spots.
Building a hydrogen station is costly, too, at about ¥400 million to ¥500 million compared with the ¥100 million required for a conventional gas station.
Do we need FCVs? Aren’t EVs enough?
Some experts say FCVs and EVs both have advantages and disadvantages, so FCVs can complement the weaknesses of EVs’ and vice versa.
One strength of FCVs is that they can travel farther. While the cruising distance for EVs is around 400 km, Toyota’s Mirai can go about 750 km.
Also, FCVs can be charged faster, taking some 3 minutes to fill up with hydrogen. EVs require 30 minutes even with a rapid charging spot.
In addition, if automakers only produce EVs there would likely be power supply crunches.
For instance, analysts expect that power demand could jump 15 percent in the U.K. by 2040 when the government there plans to ban the sales of gasoline vehicles, according to a survey by Reuters.
For this reason, Oyama said there is “no doubt” hydrogen-powered FCVs will be needed.
“But compared to EVs, it will take longer for fuel cell vehicles to become widespread,” he said.
Oyama said more automakers will probably start mass-producing FCVs after 2025, whereas EV’s will already be becoming popular by around 2025.
“Eventually, we think the ratio (of EVs to FCVs, among all vehicles) will be 70 percent to 30 percent,” said Oyama.
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