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Monday, June 19, 2017

Who Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle?

There's a chalk outline on the ground. As you walk past the Police tape you hear "Nothing to see here; move along."

As we discussed here, Toyota is following consumer demand and has turned its attention away from fuel cell vehicles to battery electric vehicles. Similarly, the oil companies walked away from Hydrogen filling stations in 2014. And in 2016, several parts suppliers have shut down their hydrogen fuel cell programs. Given this, you might say that FCVs are dead, and if you do, then that begs the question, Who Killed the FCV?

Just as the documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? listed the suspects and the evidence against them. Let's run down the suspects for the "killing of the FCV."

Our list of suspects are:
  • Consumers
  • The US Government
  • The California Air Resources Board
  • Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
  • Hydrogen Generation Energy Efficiency
  • Hydrogen Infrastructure Cost
  • Battery Technology
  • Tesla Motors
  • Automakers 
  • Hydrogen Safety 
There's our suspect list. Is there anyone else that should be there? Let me know below along with the case against them. 

Suspect Consumers [Updated]
The two FCVs that are available today are the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Tucson FCV. Fewer than 2000 Mirai have been delivered and Hyundai has about half that number of Tucson FCVs on the road. It is not clear if these small sales numbers are due to low demand or low production volumes. Many of the customers that are interested in alternative fuel vehicles have moved to battery electric vehicles. The marketing of BEVs and FCVs have often pitted these two technologies as rivals. Even if the supply is limited, I have not seen consumers lining up demanding more fuel cell vehicles. 
Guilt: guilty
Suspect The US Government
The US Government kickstarted fuel cell development during the space race of the 1960s and supported FCVs with more than $1B during the G.W. Bush administration. This support was yanked away under Secretary Chu's tenure in the DOE.
Guilt: undetermined
Suspect California Air Resources Board (CARB)
The ZEV mandate gave credits to both battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles. Many of the rules were written to favor fast refueling times and favored FCVs over BEVs. Meaning that a FCV sold in California could receive twice as many credits as a comparable BEV. This may have been unfair to battery electric vehicles, but it did not contribute to the death of FCVs.
Guilt: not guilty
Suspect Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology
Fuel cell stacks made great technological strides from the 1960 to the 1990 and again from the 1990 to the introduction of the Mirai in 2015. When coupled with a small battery pack (as they usually are) these stacks have the power output to deliver a satisfying driving experience.
Guilt: not guilty 
Suspect Hydrogen Energy Efficiency
If you read more than one FCV detractor article, you'll hear the efficiency argument. One version of it is shown in the image below.
Battery electric cars can be charged directly by renewable energy. If that same energy were put into Hydrogen production you would get far fewer resulting miles. The Hydrogen has to be split from water, compressed, stored, transported, pumped into the vehicle and finally processed by the vehicles fuel stack.
This argument is true. Electric cars are more efficient, but the inefficiencies of H2 don't matter if the Hydrogen could be delivered profitably. The well-to-tank process for crude oil is complex, but it can be done profitably with an affordable resulting product. The simplest system is not always the one that wins, its the one that best meets the customers needs. 
Guilt: Contributing factor (cost additions)
Suspect Hydrogen Infrastructure
Hydrogen filling stations take about 3 years to build and have a cost of about $1 million. When Shell or Exxon had the option to open a new gas station that would profitably sell gasoline to thousands of cars or to spend significantly more to build an H2 filling station that might have 3 cars in a week. Building a H2 filling station did not make financial sense unless the station were highly subsidized. 

Guilt: guilty 
Suspect Batteries
Battery technology has advanced far faster than fuel cells. Batteries were a primary technology to making smaller longer lived smartphones and nearly every high-tech hardware company is committing part of their R&D budget to improving battery energy density, lifespan, thermal profile, packaging, and/or management. These improvements along with the ubiquity of electrical outlets for recharging gives batteries a big advantage in performance improvement rate and refueling infrastructure. 
Guilt: guilty 
Suspect Tesla Motors
Tesla made EVs cool. Guilty, case closed. Actually, it is a more nuanced than that. Tesla rode the wave of advancing battery technology. This was being driven by Panasonic, BYD, LG Chem, and others. The EV revolution was coming with or without Tesla. Tesla just (greatly) accelerated it.
Guilt: Contributor 
Suspect Legacy Automakers
Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota were three of the biggest FCV supporters, but nearly all of big automakers had POC vehicles. Brad Pitt showed up to the premiere of “Ocean’s Thirteen” in a BMW Hydrogen 7. The car companies have spent billions trying to bring FCVs to market. They have chased the unicorn long and hard. 
Guilt: Not guilty 

Suspect Hydrogen Safety
Like Godwin's Law, if you talk about FCVs long enough, some one will mention the Hindenburg. There have been no FCV fires that I am aware of. Vehicles need a lot of energy to move. This is inherently dangerous regardless of fuel choice. There are more than 100,000 gasoline car fires each year. I have not seen any data that shows FCVs would be more dangerous than the current status quo. 

 Guilt: Not guilty

There's a chalk outline on the ground. As you walk past the Police tape you hear "Nothing to see here; move along."

Let's recap our suspects:

Level of Guilt
Consumers Guilty
The US Government Partial Guilt
California Air Resources Board Not Guilty
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology Not Guilty
Hydrogen Generation Efficiency    Contributing Factor
Hydrogen Infrastructure Cost Guilty
Battery Technology Guilty
Tesla Motors Contributor
Automakers Not Guilty
Hydrogen Safety Not Guilty

As you can see there are multiple guilty parties and multiple contributing factors. There is no single magic bullet that ended fuel cells. Whatever the obstacles or excuses, after decades of research and development FCVs have been unable to produce vehicles that consumers demand in droves or the infrastructure needed to fuel them.

Consumers have grown weary of walking toward the hydrogen Mirai mirage. In the battle to determine the successor to gasoline, H2 is the Betamax to battery's VHS or it is the HD-DVD to battery's Blu-ray.

FCVs may have a chalk outline around them or they may just be in critical condition on life-support. Just as EVs were killed in the 1990s and revived in the twenty-teens, FCVs could have their day again if the right breakthroughs occur. We'll be watching.