Did hydrogen fuel cell cars miss their chance?

Did hydrogen fuel cell cars miss their chance?

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February 17, 2022 13 By Julie Campbell

Recent study results suggest that FCVs are riding a thin line and that the opportunity is fading.

The results of a recently published study indicate that the opportunity for hydrogen fuel cell cars and that the window is closing for heavy-duty trucks too.

The study indicated that it might be too late for H2 to play a substantial role in road transportation.

The study results were published in Nature Electronics. The study was lead authored by Patrick Plötz, from the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research. Plötz claimed not to be affected by any conflicting interest that would have affected his prediction of the future of H2 in road transportation. He argued that battery electric vehicle improvements in both charging speed and range have negated the primary selling points of hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Vehicles powered by H2 have always stood out from battery electric counterparts because of fast refueling time and long ranges. As a result, Plötz is now recommending that policymakers should place their focus on the promotion of battery electric vehicles (EVs), instead of splitting their efforts by hanging in there to see what potential H2 might still have to offer.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars haven’t seen nearly the adoption rate that EVs have experienced until now.

EVs have already proven to be considerably more popular than fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) in the passenger vehicle category. While some data indicates that FCVs saw a higher growth rate in sales than EVs in 2021, the total numbers remain substantially higher among those that plug in to recharge batteries.

The study pointed out that by the start of 2021, there were around 25,000 FCVs on the road in the form of passenger cars. Moreover, there were two FCV models available in that category, the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo. Worldwide, there were about 540 stations, said data cited by the study.

Comparatively, the study authors predicted that by the start of this year, there were probably around 15 million battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles in the category. Even if FCVs took off explosively last year, it is very unlikely that they would have been able to even approach a catch-up rate in one year.

While hydrogen fuel cell cars have missed their shot, the opportunity for trucks is also dwindling.

Many vehicle-makers that had already abandoned hydrogen fuel cell cars have been willing to hang in there for the potential H2 has to offer trucking. The reason is that electric trucks require massive battery packs, which has been a substantially limiting factor. Still, regardless of this substantial limitation, EVs still outnumber FCVs in trucks.

Battery electric range currently remains too limited to be practical for use in long-haul trucking. That said, a nice market may remain there for FCVs, said the study. That said, this advantage will need to be grabbed up soon or it could be missed.

Upcoming megawatt charging systems might bring EVs the advantage they’re seeking in that category tool. What has yet to be know, said the study, is whether it would be more expensive to use than hydrogen fuel cells in trucks. It could be that the total cost of ownership will come to be the deciding factor for which technology will power the trucking industry, said the study report.

“Policymakers and industry need to decide quickly whether the fuel cell electric truck niche is large enough to sustain further hydrogen technology development, or whether it is time to cut their losses and to focus efforts elsewhere,” concluded the study.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars - shipping industry

Even as promise may be fading for hydrogen fuel cell cars, the opportunity is there in other areas.

Even though the study authors stated that even as they watched the window close for the potential of hydrogen fuel cell cars and potentially for trucks too, other industries have the potential to be huge with H2. They pointed specifically to shipping, aviation and steel-making as areas where H2 will take off.

Most major automakers agree with the researchers. Volkswagen has already stated that it doesn’t believe H2 makes any sense in passenger vehicles. GM has also shut off any efforts of using H2 technology in passenger vehicles, even as it moves forward in using it for trucking and in military applications. It is also looking into using the zero-emission fuel for portable generators and for fast EV charging stations.

On the other hand, Toyota, Hyundai and Kia are all continuing to keep hydrogen fuel cell cars in development, seeing potential in their use for passenger vehicles where the researchers do not.