Fill ‘er up…with hydrogen?

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Fill ‘er up…with hydrogen?
Image Credit: David Lardner
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Of all the automobiles at the 2015 New York International Auto Show, three models were powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And, of the three, it appears only one is ready to step outside the traditional fuel cell markets of of Southern California, Japan and to a much lesser degree, limited areas of Europe.

There have been attempts over the years to build hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, but any progress has been limited by the cost of the fuel cell stack (individual fuel cells connected in a series within a fuel cell’s generating assembly) and the lack of the infrastructure needed to fuel such cars.

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First, what is a hydrogen fuel cell?

A fuel cell is a device that converts the energy from a chemical fuel through a reaction with an oxidizing agent such as oxygen. In the case of the cars mentioned here, that chemical fuel is hydrogen. 

Who’s marketing them?

Fill 'er up...with hydrogen?Since 2008, Honda has had a car called the FCX Clarity in limited release in Japan, Southern California and a few in Europe but it has generally been used for publicity, research and development–and leased to government agencies as a ‘green’ or an alternative fuel vehicle (AFV)–though a few retail leases have been made. Toyota has also had a small fleet of fuel cell vehicle (FCV) Highlanders around for testing though none have made it into customer hands.

Historically, the cost of fuel cell stacks has made mass production unfeasible. In fact, the cost has even made those produced in limited release cost prohibitive.

But technical breakthroughs in the past few years have significantly reduced the cost of manufacturing fuel cell stacks and this has led to the first vehicles being marketed to retail consumers in significant numbers. These breakthroughs have primarily come from a reduction in the rare earth materials needed to manufacture an efficient fuel cell. However, while the cost of producing these fuel cells has declined dramatically, it is still nowhere near what it should be in order for them to be a profitable product.

Last year, Hyundai began leasing a fuel cell version of its Tucson compact crossover. What’s interesting about this particular lease is that it comes with free and unlimited fuel.  What’s not so nice is that you must live within a few miles of the four Southern California dealerships that have installed the hydrogen fueling stations.  And, because there is such limited infrastructure in terms of fueling, driving the car outside of the Los Angeles metro area is pretty much impossible.

Toyota is looking to change that. They’ve been showing their fuel cell vehicle, the Mirai, for about a year now and there were several displayed at this spring’s New York International Auto Show.  There were also two available for very short drives.

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Fill 'er up...with hydrogen?

The Mirai was launched in Japan in December 2014 and they are now preparing for its launch in the US.  What’s impressive is that they are planning on doing so outside the traditional Southern California market by making it available in five Northeastern states as well. Those states are New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Toyota is currently very busy making sure that there are enough fueling stations available in those states to make the car fully functional to consumers.

Toyota began taking orders on July 20 and will start deliveries in California in October. Deliveries in the five Northeastern states begin in early 2016.

What will it cost?

The Mirai will hit the market with a price of $57,500 and Toyota will be offering it with a lease price of $499 a month with $3,649 due at signing.  Whether or not you lease or buy, Toyota will provide up to three years worth of free hydrogen. A Federal Hydrogen Fuel Cell incentive (in the form of a tax credit) of $8,000 expired in December 2014 so there is a possibility that the overall cost of ownership could decrease significantly if the incentive is renewed. But, as it stands right now, there is no incentive.

Why hydrogen and not electric?

What makes a fuel cell vehicle compelling is that it’s essentially an electric car that produces its own electricity from hydrogen, storing that electricity in a battery and constantly recharging what is used to propel the car. And, like an electric car, there is no noxious exhaust. In fact, the only byproduct of the production of electricity is water. 

Because a fuel cell vehicle uses hydrogen as fuel to generate electricity, refueling is somewhat similar to pulling up to a gas pump. However, the pumps operate under extremely high pressure and the tanks at the station and the tanks in the cars have to be extremely strong. That means, that while the procedure may be similar to refueling a gasoline or diesel powered vehicle, the equipment is much more complex and sophisticated. That being said, the Mirai will have an estimated range per tank of 312 miles. That beats even Tesla’s biggest battery EV. And, refueling will take up much less time than a visit to one of Tesla’s Superchargers.

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In regards to the hydrogen tank in the car, Toyota and the other manufacturers have gone to extraordinary lengths to make sure that they aren’t releasing a bunch of rolling H-bombs on the roadways. The onboard tanks are made from reinforced carbon fiber so, in the event of an impact, the fuel will stay compressed and won’t present any more danger to occupants than a conventional internal combustion engine vehicle would in the same situation.

What is it like to drive?

There were very short test drives available at the New York International Auto Show and the best way the Mirai can be described is that it performs very much like any other electric sedan.  It was quiet and smooth as one might expect and the interior materials are top-notch. Anyone who has ever driven a Prius would feel immediately at home. As for the exterior, the car could best be described as an exaggeration of Toyota’s current design language from some angles. From other angles it looks like a bizarre interpretation of a futuristic sedan. People will either love it or hate it.

Fill 'er up...with hydrogen?An interesting capability that both Toyota and Honda demonstrated with these cars is that, with the proper equipment, they can generate enough electricity to power items in a home during extended power outages. This could be particularly useful to people living in hurricane prone areas or in the case of other natural disasters like the December 2011 tsunami where the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged and electricity was in short supply for a very long time.

Who can buy or lease a Mirai?

Toyota’s website has a questionnaire that has to be completed prior to being able to order the Mirai. That means one likely needs to be within certain areas of certain states in order to have access to fueling stations before Toyota will allow an order to be placed.

Are Hydrogen Fuel Cells the future of driving?

They very well may be the future of driving, but adoption of this technology will take longer than electric vehicles because the fueling stations are incredibly complex and the cost of the technology involved is still not at a point where it’s affordable and profitable. However, the idea of long-range driving with relatively short refueling times with no greenhouse gases is the dream that electric cars have yet to completely fulfill.

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David Lardner About the author:
David Lardner is a volunteer at Team Clark Howard's Consumer Action Center. He is also an active board member of the Greater Atlanta Automotive Media Association.
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