Hydrogen cars: No chemistry

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In April 2017, Toyota announced the launch of a feasibility study that will examine the performance of hydrogen-fuel-cell-vehicle (FCV) technology in heavy-duty applications. This involves the use of a Class 8 truck that’s powered by such a system at Port of Los Angeles. A day earlier, according to Automotive News, Toyota announced that it would begin to test-market its Mirai hydrogen-fuel-cell sedan in China.

The technology of FCVs isn’t in doubt; it’s proven and is used on buses in municipal and regional transit systems in the United States. The Mirai and Honda’s Clarity Fuel Cell are available in the United States in California. However, the specialized fueling stations that are required for passenger FCVs are few and far between. Pricing isn’t appealing, either. The 2017 Mirai’s MSRP is $57,500. Honda makes the Clarity Fuel Cell available only by lease, but published reports that cite Honda peg the MSRP at $60,000. The two cars are comparable in size with the Honda Accord Sedan and the Chevrolet Malibu, which have an opening MSRP of $22,455 and $21,680, respectively, for the 2017 model year. The 2017 electric Nissan Leaf, which is about 17 inches shorter than are the two FCVs, starts at $30,680; the 2017 electric Ford Fusion Energi, which is about 1 inch shorter than are the FCVs, opens at $33,120.

Even Nissan’s 2016 announcement about a system that eliminates the need to refill on hydrogen has critics. Therefore, we remain skeptical that FCVs ever will move beyond something that automakers can use to tout their engineering savvy.

Jack Winnick, who is the author of a March 2017
article, “The Fuel Cell Car Myth,” casts further doubt on the likelihood that FCV passenger cars ever will amount to much, based on what he says are their somewhat-exaggerated low-emission and high-efficiency capabilities compared with those of electric cars.

“If you only consider the emissions from the car itself, [FCV cars] appear very efficient and benign,” he says. “If you consider the whole fuel cycle, they are not. The hydrogen necessary for the car’s operation must be derived from fossil fuels, most likely from natural gas.”

Winnick says electric cars are much better than are FCV cars. “Terrific advances have been made in battery technology that have not been seen in fuel-cell technology,” he says.