In recent years, the development of vehicles powered by energy sources other than fossil fuels has been in vogue for certain sectors of the auto world. Motor vehicles are responsible for emitting about half of all airborne smog-creating particles and nitrogen oxide. Currently, there are two major camps which have developed in the world of alternative automotive fuels: electric vehicles (EVs) typically powered by energy stored in a lithium-ion battery pack or fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) which utilize fuel cells configured to generate electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen. Neither of these are truly zero emission technologies, as fossil fuels are currently still used to generate the electricity which charges the battery or the hydrogen consumed by the fuel cell. But the cars emit no carbon while in operation which poses a positive impact for air quality, especially in urban areas.
Despite a growing spate of vehicle recalls from a wide collection of automakers from all over the world, Americans are buying more and more cars. They just aren’t buying cars powered by alternative fuel sources. In 2014, about 16.5 million new cars were sold in the United States, the best year for new auto sales since 2006. Only around 120,000 of those were electric vehicles, accounting for less than one percent of total sales. Since first being offered on the American market in 2011, there have been cumulative sales of 340,000 EVs in this country according to statistics collected by the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
Fuel cell vehicles are rolling out in even smaller numbers. Only a handful of American car drivers, maybe a couple hundred, are operating FCVs offered through lease programs from Honda and Mercedes. The vast majority of these cars are in California owing largely to state tax breaks for alternative vehicle purchases and a lack of hydrogen refueling stations elsewhere in the nation; it’s much easier to tap into an existing electrical grid for energy rather than to build a nation-wide series of hydrogen generating plants.
Aside from the zero tailpipe emissions for EVs and FCVs, there are few other similarities between the two as auto fuel sources. Hydrogen vehicles have a driving range of 300 miles or so on a full fuel cell tank, which is as much as three or four times the distance that most EVs can travel on a full charge. Of course, that extended range is of little use when most of the nation lives more than 300 miles away from the closest fuel cell station; there are currently 12 hydrogen fueling stations in America, 10 of them in California.
Car manufacturers around the world tend to fall into either the EV or the FCV camp when assessing their developments in alternative fuel-powered vehicles. There are far more players in the electric vehicle field, which is headed up by Nissan Motor Company (TYO:7201) and Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA). In 2014, those two companies accounted for nearly 60,000 new vehicle sales, about half of all new electric vehicle sales that year. Other car makers developing electric vehicles include BMW, Ford, Mitsubishi and Volkswagen. Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) occupies the lead position among hydrogen fuel cell vehicle makers in terms of development. This January, we profiled Toyota’s decision to offer cost-free licensing of nearly 6,000 hydrogen fuel cell patents only a few months after Tesla decided to completely open source the few hundred EV patents it holds in its corporate portfolio.
Both EVs and FCVs are very similar to gasoline-powered vehicles with slight differences in their propulsion systems. Instead of an internal combustion engine, an electric vehicle’s energy comes from an array of rechargeable batteries stored within the vehicle’s housing. Controller units receive inputs from the driver’s accelerator pedal and transmit a corresponding amount of electricity to the motor. Electric vehicles can be charged through a standard household outlet, charging stations or through private home charging systems that can drastically improve charging times over standard outlets. The time to fully charge an electric vehicle can range between one hour and 12 hours.
Fuel cell vehicles contain a tank of compressed hydrogen which is converted into electricity by a fuel cell stack. Fuel cells, specifically polymer electrolyte membrane (PEM) fuel cells, work by reacting oxygen and hydrogen near an anode and a cathode to generate an electrical current with the help of a PEM. Multiple individual fuel cells are combined into stacks to provide the energy needed to propel a car forward. Battery packs in FCVs are still used but they are typically smaller and charged by excess energy from the hydrogen fuel cell or through regenerative braking techniques which draw energy from the kinetic force of braking by switching the motor to operate in reverse while braking, flipping the route of the electricity being sent. Regenerative braking is also often available on EVs.
The German automaker Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (XETRA:BMW), better known by the acronym BMW, is developing a vehicle announced by the company at a recent event profiling BMW innovations. The company unveiled FCEV technology which will be incorporated into some models which will hit showrooms in 2020. It has a motor that outputs 245 horsepower, a tunnel tank for hydrogen storage between the front and rear axles and a high-voltage battery for energy storage. BMW collaborated on the development of this fuel cell vehicle with Toyota, which is a strong sign that at least one company has been taking up Toyota on its cost-free licensing offer. For this vehicle, which has yet to be named, Toyota would construct the fuel cell and BMW will focus on the hydrogen tank, batteries and electric motor. This partnership flies very much in the face of the “not invented here” bias which has permeated the auto industry for decades, which we noted was changing in our coverage of Ford’s recent announcement that it would encourage licensing of its electric vehicle technology.
There’s nothing unprecedented about BMW’s FCEV technology as both Toyota and Honda Motor Company (NYSE:HMC) are selling their first FCEV models this year. But taken along with the further shift in collaborative vehicle production and development, it gives us a moment to consider an interesting new trajectory for alternatively fueled vehicle development. Much of the talk over alternative fuels focuses on which of the two major non-fossil fuel sources of energy for cars will eventually win out as the premier alternative vehicle fuel source. Not much discussion has centered on blending certain elements, such as the long driving range of FCVs with the ease of recharging an EV. With a more cooperative nature developing between car manufacturers in terms of licensing technologies, we could see more partnerships between an electric vehicle developer like BMW with Toyota, Honda or any other fuel cell vehicle maker.
The essential problem posed by a lack of hydrogen fueling stations in America will likely be the largest limiting factor on the acceptance of those vehicles among consumers. There are currently 48 hydrogen fueling stations in development in the state of California but most of those are centered around either San Francisco or Los Angeles so while those two metropolitan communities will have plenty of access to hydrogen, the rest of the state is out of luck. The cities are separated by nearly 400 miles so it would be tough to build a car possible to travel between these hydrogen-rich regions, even on a full charge. One station in development in Coalinga, CA, would serve as a midway charging station for the trip between the two cities. Electric vehicles have a definite head-start on fuel cell vehicles but hydrogen refuses to go away, although its adoption is proving to be much slower. Hydrogen might be the tortoise to electric’s hare but it seems possible that the two could even work in tandem someday,