Fuel Cells in Detroit: Hydrogen's Moment in the Sun

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Jan 15, 2015

DETROIT—It was the year of the fuel-cell car at the Detroit Auto Show. There were hydrogen cars on the stands of Honda, Toyota, Mercedes-Benz and Hyundai, and one of them was an American premiere. All four automakers are committed to bringing these zero-emission vehicles to market this year and next.

The Honda FCV Concept is close to final. Whether it's better looking than the Toyota Mirai may depend on your taste. (Jim Motavalli photo)The big news here was the Honda FCV Concept, making its North American debut. First shown in Japan, the FCV may be a concept but it’s heading for production (with U.S. versions available in 2016).

On the show floor, I had a minute to talk with Steve Ellis, American Honda Motor’s manager for fuel-cell vehicle marketing. “The final styling work on the FCV is being done now,” he said. “But what we’re showing here in Detroit is sufficiently far along so that it looks like a car we could actually build.”

Indeed, it did. The FCV has a certain angular charm, like an Android version of the Accord I currently have in the driveway. It’s definitely better looking than the solidly engineered but styling-challenged Toyota Mirai, which some wags compared to the Pontiac Aztek. Both the Mirai and the FCV are capable of 300 miles of travel on a tank of hydrogen, with three- to five-minute fill-ups, big selling points for hydrogen cars. The FCV will now store hydrogen at 10,000 psi, which means more fuel on board and faster fill times.

The Toyota Mirai: no beauty contest winner, but exciting performance. (Jim Motavalli photo)Marcos Frommer, a Honda spokesman, told me that 2016 volumes haven’t been set yet, or even locations. “We’re working with the University of California at Irvine to identify locations where there’s the highest likelihood of customers—where there are people who fit the profile for this kind of vehicle,” he said.

Right now the customers are, by default, in southern California, which has the only currently operating network of stations. The state has eight hydrogen stations open right now, says the California Fuel-Cell Partnership, with 49 in development. By the end of the year, the picture should be a lot brighter, and San Francisco will have a working grid of stations.

Infrastructure is the biggest obstacle for hydrogen cars, and the Northeast (a target market) now has only one public station open (in Connecticut). But both Honda and Toyota are putting money into stations. Toyota, in addition to supporting California installations, is working with Air Liquide to put a dozen in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island. Honda has provided $13.8 million to FirstElement Fuel for fillers in California.

Acura's reborn NSX, a high-performance hybrid with three electric motors, got the press drooling. (Jim Motavalli photo)Honda also set the flash bulbs popping in Detroit with the Acura NSX, a return of the legendary supercar, now a high-performance hybrid with no less than three electric motors.

Hyundai, which launched a plug-in hybrid version of the Sonata in Detroit, was the first automaker to actually get a fuel-cell car (the Tucson) on the market. It’s been selling them to customers in California since June for $499 a month. Tim Bush, the first customer, said back then, “What's great about the Tucson crossover is that its day-to-day utility is virtually identical to the gasoline version, so we don’t have to compromise our lifestyle in the process; I can easily fit all of our family’s things in the back.”

Hyundai brought its unassuming Tucson fuel-cell car to Detroit. (Jim Motavalli photo)Hyundai’s Mike O’Brien told me in Detroit that the company will see how the Tucson sells in California, then explore other markets. “We’d like to sell it outside of California as soon as possible,” he said.

Another way of looking at the Tucson. (Jim Motavalli photo)In its press conference, Hyundai made plain it is giving its customers a choice—hybrid, plug-in hybrid, fuel cell, electric (in the form of the Kia Soul EV) or gasoline. It’s not expecting consumers to make hardships—in its reply to 10 questions about fuel cells from Green Car Reports, Hyundai said, “At no time would the company expect an owner to have to travel 10 to 30 miles to refuel.”

Mercedes-Benz' self-driving Luxury in Motion combines plug-in hybrid and hydrogen power. (Jim Motavalli photo)The other fuel-cell car in Detroit, the Mercedes-Benz F 015 Luxury in Motion, also drives itself. The focus was on the Luxury in Motion being the first car designed from the ground up as a self driver, but the Detroit Free Press said this about the F-Cell-based drivetrain, “Power comes from a plug-in hybrid system that uses a hydrogen fuel cell to generate more power when the batteries are drained. The fuel cell or battery power a pair of electric motors linked to the rear wheels.”

Incidentally, Elon Musk of Tesla was in town to speak at the Automotive News World Conference. His company's booth at the show was pretty quiet, since the finished Model X isn't ready yet, but Musk made headlines anyway--about a sales slowdown in China, and about fuel cells. "I just think they're extremely silly," he said about them. "If you're going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is just an extremely dumb one to pick."

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