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Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Creeping Up on EVs But Have a Long Way to Go

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【Summary】Hydrogen fuel-cell cars could compete with EVs -- if the infrastructure gets there.

Original Timothy Healey    Apr 28, 2017 10:15 AM PT
Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars Creeping Up on EVs But Have a Long Way to Go

Hydrogen fuel-cell cars are nothing new, but the tech may finally be ready for prime-time.

Honda, Hyundai, and Toyota have all leased fuel-cell vehicles to customers in recent years, and the three companies may lease well over 1,000 this year. But thanks to a lack of fuel stations – most of the country's 34 hydrogen fuel stations that are open to the public are located in California – the market for fuel-cells hasn't grown much.

Automakers Continue To Puruse Hydrogen

That's not stopping other automakers from getting in on the game – General Motors has recently supplied a fuel-cell pickup truck to the U.S. Army. GM is also about to collaborate with Honda on a fuel-cell system that is scheduled to launch in 2020. Meanwhile, Hyundai is increasing its presence in the segment – it has plans to unveil a fuel-cell with a longer range next year.
"We've clearly left the science project stage and the technology is viable," Charles Freese, the boss of GM's fuel-cell business, told Top Tech News.

Like EVs, fuel-cell vehicles are quiet and free of tailpipe emissions. However, they also have some advantages over EVs – mainly that they refill in the same amount of time it takes to refuel a gasoline-engine car, instead of taking hours, which is how long it takes for most electric vehicles to fully recharge. Fuel-cell vehicles also have a longer range between full and empty than EVs.

Multiple Upsides, One Major Downside

However, there's only 37 public hydrogen stations (all but three of which are in California), since it costs up to $2 million to build one. That leads to a bit of a Catch 22 – there aren't enough stations to fill fuel-cell cars, and station owners don't want to spend the money to build more until more fuel-cell cars are on the road.

There's a lot more EV chargers out there, of course (over 15,000 public stations, plus more private ones), and EV owners can do something no fuel-cell owner can do – install a charger at home (of course, most owners of traditional gas and diesel cars can't do that either).

Therefore, it's not a surprise that almost 80,000 EVs were sold last year but just under 2,000 fuel-cell vehicles were sold. Of course, EVs are also available across a larger swath of the country than just California.

That may be why Honda is adding EV and plug-in hybrid versions of the Clarity, which is currently available only as a fuel-cell vehicle.

"We think going forward the powertrain market is going to be very diverse," Steve Center, vice president of the environmental business development office at American Honda, said to Top Tech News.

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