Hydrogen fuel-cell cars will cost significantly more than conventional cars and there are currently few refuelling stations. But Toyota believes that when they are compared to the other zero-emissions alternative, battery-powered electric vehicles, or EVs, fuel cells suddenly don’t look so bad.
Fuel-cell cars use a “stack” of cells that electro-chemically combine hydrogen with oxygen to generate electricity that helps propel the car. Their only emission, apart from heat, is water vapor, they can run five times longer than battery electric cars, and it takes just minutes to fill the tank with hydrogen – far quicker than even the most rapid charger can recharge a battery electric car.
“With the 2015 FC car we think we’ve achieved a degree of dominance over our rivals,” Satoshi Ogiso, a Toyota managing director, said in a recent interview at the group’s global headquarters. “With the car, we make a first giant step” toward making fuel-cell vehicles practical for everyday use.
What’s more, executives and engineers say Toyota is willing to sell the car at a loss for a long while to popularize the new technology – just as it did with the Prius, which, with other hybrids, now accounts for 14 percent of Toyota’s annual sales, excluding group companies, of around 9 million vehicles.
As a result, drivers in key “green” markets such as California may be able to buy the car for a little more than $30,000-$40,000, after government subsidies – if management approves a pricing strategy put forward by a group of managers and engineers. General Motors Co’s Chevrolet Volt, a near-all-electric plug-in hybrid, for comparison, starts at around $35,000 in the United States.
“It really provides all the benefits of a plug-in EV without the range anxiety and without the time it takes to recharge it,” says Bill Fay, group vice president of the Toyota division, in a interview at the Chicago Auto Show.
Since most battery-powered cars are limited to about 100 miles per charge, the term “range anxiety” has come to mean the worries that owners face about running out of juice before they can limp home or to a public charging station. Hydrogen cars can go hundreds of miles on a fillup, and the fillup only takes about five minutes, Fay points out.
Takeshi Uchiyamada, the 67-year-old “father of the Prius” whose success catapulted him from mid-level engineer to Toyota board chairman, says technology inefficiencies will make the battery electric car little more than an “errands car” – a small run-around for shopping, dropping the kids at school and other short-haul chores.
As with battery electric cars, a major challenge for fuel-cell automakers is a lack of infrastructure, with few hydrogen fuel stations in the world. Estimates vary, but it costs about $2 million to build a single hydrogen fuel station in the United States, according to Toyota executives.
At present, California, the state that once had planned a “hydrogen highway” of stations, has nine. But the state has plans to vastly increase the network, says Bob Carter, a senior vice president for Toyota.
Studies have shown, he says, that fewer stations than might be expected can support the needs of a lot of drivers. As few as 68 is enough to meet the needs of drivers of 10,000 cars.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars, Carter says, will “fundamentally change” how America thinks about alternative fuel vehicles.
However, many automobile manufacturers are staking their future on battery electric cars including Nissan Motor Co, Tesla Motors Inc, Bayerische Motoren Werke AG,GM, Ford Motor Co and Chinese automakers backed by the country’s industrial policymakers. China offers generous purchase incentives for those buying battery electric cars and aims to have 5 million “new energy” vehicles – mostly all-electric and near all-electric plug-in hybrids – on the road by 2020.
Tesla chief Elon Musk has said hydrogen is an unsuitable fuel for cars. In a videotaped speech last year to employees and others at a new Tesla service center in Germany, Musk said: “Fuel-cell is so bullshit. Hydrogen is a quite dangerous gas. It’s suitable for the upper-stage rocket, but not for cars.”
Even Toyota only expects tens of thousands of fuel-cell cars to be sold each year a decade from now as the new technology will need time to gain traction. Ogiso says Toyota has cut the platinum use per car by more than two-thirds through nanotechnology and stack-design improvements, and he expects to trim that further. Engineer Hitoshi Nomasa said a hydrogen-powered Toyota SUV now uses around 30 grams of platinum in the fuel-cell, down from 100 grams previously. Platinum currently costs $1,437 an ounce (28 grams) on world markets.
Toyota has also borrowed spare parts from the Prius and other gasoline-electric hybrids it sells around the world. While the fuel-cell car uses hydrogen as fuel, it otherwise resembles the hybrid models as both use electricity to power their motors.
While costs have come down significantly, Toyota says a hydrogen car’s fuel-cell propulsion system alone still costs it close to $50,000 to produce. That’s partly why some Toyota money managers want a more conservative pricing strategy – of $50,000-$100,000 – said one individual on the 2015 FC car launch team.
“It might be tough to price it below $50,000,” Ogiso said. “But anything is possible at this point.”
Sources: USA Today, Business Insider, Toyota Co.
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