GM and Honda announce joint investment in fuel cell development, marrying two largest patent portfolios in the field

By Steve Brachmann
February 7, 2017

Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle on display during the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center.

Honda Clarity fuel cell vehicle on display during the New York International Auto Show at the Jacob Javits Center.

Last week Detroit, MI-based automaker General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Japanese automaker Honda Motor Co. (NYSE:HMC) announced a joint investment of $85 million into a business venture, which will focus on developing technologies for use in fuel cells. According to a statement released by both companies, Fuel Cell System Manufacturing LLC will operate within GM’s existing battery pack manufacturing plant in Brownstown, MI, creating up to 100 jobs and beginning mass production of fuel cells in 2020.

The official announcement released by both GM and Honda notes that both companies enjoy patent portfolios related to fuel cell battery technologies, which are among the world’s largest. A review of clean energy patents granted during 2015 by the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index (CEPGI) shows that GM and Honda rank first and second, respectively, among companies that have been assigned U.S. patents directed at fuel cells between 2002 and 2015; the press release from the companies contradicts this slightly, claiming that Honda is third-place in this category. During the 14 years surveyed by the CEPGI, GM has earned 918 U.S. patents on fuel cells and related technologies while Honda has earned 757 U.S. patents. Japanese automaker Toyota Motor Corp. (NYSE:TM) earned the most fuel cell patents during 2015 with 89 grants, edging out GM’s 87 fuel cell patents and well ahead of Honda’s total of 57 fuel cell patents during the year. Toyota is also third place in the 2002-2015 survey, earning 723 fuel cell patents during that period.

GM and Honda’s joint fuel cell manufacturing venture will seek to both create affordable hydrogen fuel cell storage systems while improving the performance of fuel cells. The companies hope that sharing fuel cell-related IP and integrating development teams in the Brownstown facility will yield results in cost efficiencies in the manufacturing process. Honda and GM have made matching $85 million investments in the development of the Brownstown facility. The Fuel Cell System Manufacturing joint venture will be operated by a board of six directors, three from either company, with a rotating chairperson. A president rotating between either company will also be appointed.

Honda’s hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCV) development activities are reflected in the production of the Clarity Fuel Cell for hydrogen-powered vehicles. Honda first unveiled its FCV concept at the 2015 North American International Auto Show (NAIAS), claiming a maximum driving range of more than 300 miles on a full hydrogen tank. Honda began selling Clarity Fuel Cell vehicles in Japan last March, offering a maximum driving range of 750 kilometers (466 miles). At the time, Honda planned to sell a maximum of 200 Clarity units in Japan over the course of one year.

Last October, Honda announced that it planned to offer Clarity-powered five-passenger sedans in the U.S. market by the end of the year. The fuel cell stacks in those Clarity vehicles were 33 percent more compact than earlier Clarity fuel cells as well as a 60 percent increase in power density over the Honda FCX Clarity. Late last December, Honda announced that it had begun deliveries of the 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell from select Honda dealerships located in southern California. Lessees of the new Honda FCV were offered credits toward $15,000 worth of hydrogen fuel for the vehicle, which has a driving range of 366 miles.

Last October, GM celebrated 50 years of fuel cell innovation when it marked the anniversary of the company’s Electrovan, a fuel cell vehicle which GM first unveiled publicly back in 1966. The press release announcing the anniversary noted that GM has invested more than $2.5 billion into the development of fuel cells for vehicles.

Recently, GM has been making some notable progress in the development of fuel cells for military vehicles. Days before GM celebrated its fuel cell anniversary, the automaker unveiled the Chevrolet Colorado ZH2, developed in partnership with the U.S. Army. The ZH2 concept vehicle features on-board water production and exportable electric power as components of the vehicle’s fuel cell system. The vehicle will be evaluated by the Army to determine near-silent operation for silent watch capability, reduced thermal signature, low fuel consumption across operating range and field uses for the water by-product of the fuel cell system.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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