More than a decade after former President George W. Bush announced his plan to wean the nation from its "addiction to oil" by way of hydrogen-powered cars, automakers are planning to roll out their first models this year.
Bush called for the transition to a hydrogen-fueled economy in his 2003 State of the Union speech. At the time, many were skeptical, questioning the president's commitment to moving the country away from petroleum as another Washington "boondoggle."
Even President Obama, an electric vehicle advocate, didn't like the idea of hydrogen cars and attempted several times to zero out the hydrogen car budget during his first term in office.
Eventually, then Energy Secretary Steven Chu "came around prior to him leaving," said Morry Markowitz, CEO of the Hydrogen Energy and Fuel Cell Association. Chu came around because "the future of this technology is now," Markowitz said. "We aren't talking about 'if' anymore."
The trade group lobbies for some of the largest automakers in the world to maintain support for the industry, which has branched out to include power companies that produce zero-emission electricity for the grid through fuel cell power plants.
Automakers will be launching their first major lines of hydrogen fuel cars beginning this year, Markowitz said. Toyota will roll out its first line of fuel cell vehicle, called the Mirai, in the California market in the fall. That will be followed by Honda bringing its cars to the showroom floor in 2016.
"This is becoming reality," he said. Korean auto giant Hyundai is also planning to introduce a fuel cell car in the U.S. within a similar timeframe.
Automakers say the rollout is not designed to feature the cars in every market. But they will begin in California, where there is a sizable hydrogen refueling infrastructure.
"In the U.S, we plan to sell 3,000 vehicles by the end of 2017" after sales of the Mirai begin this year, says Toyota environmental communications manager Jana Hartline in an email. "Approximately 2,000 units will be produced globally by late 2016," Hartline says. The cost of the Mirai is expected to be around that of a luxury Lexus sedan, just under $60,000, but it has been reported that Toyota has plans to slash the price. Other automakers are expected to have programs for consumers to lease the vehicles.
The company is bullish on hydrogen, using its experience in developing a market for its hybrid-electric Prius as its template. "Toyota believes that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles have the potential to be the powertrain for the next 100 years," Hartline says. "We are focused on the longterm with fuel cell vehicles and know it will take time, and continued infrastructure development, to reach large volumes."
Hydrogen cars will be a niche market for a while before they rank alongside the Prius, whose sales total about 200,000 a year, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.
The electric vehicle market has been tricky. Tesla shipped 21,539 of its luxury electric Model S cars at the beginning of the month, which news reports say is half of the company's annual target. The Chevy Volt sold around 23,000 units in 2013, dropping to around 18,000 in 2014. The Nissan Leaf plug-in electric car sold about 30,000 units in 2014, up from 22,000 in 2013, according to the autoblog.com.
Toyota and hydrogen provider Air Liquide will begin constructing a hydrogen refueling network in the densely populated Northeast to begin a vehicle rollout there, she says. The company will release more details on that effort "soon," she said. It will comprise 12 stations in Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey.
General Motors is still gunning to be a leader on fuel cells, said Dan Flores, senior communications manager for the company's hydrogen program. He says GM is working with Honda in perfecting its vehicle system.
Although Honda and Toyota are rolling out their models beginning this year, GM will wait until 2020, Flores said. "We think hydrogen fuel cell technologies hold tremendous potential. However, there is some work to be done," noting that refueling infrastructure remains a big concern.
Yet, in actually making the cars work, "a lot of the hurdles have been overcome," Flores said.
Hydrogen fuel cells don't use hydrogen like a car uses gasoline. There is no combustion required. The fuel cells use a chemical reaction to make electricity, which turns an electric motor that drives the car. Automakers are interested in them because they make electric vehicles more practical by extending their range without the added weight of batteries. Battery technology is improving, but not at a rate where a breakthrough to reduce size or up electric storage capacity is imminent, observers say.
Batteries, which Tesla uses, lose performance over time as they charge and discharge. Fuels cells do not. How far cars can go without refueling is an increasing concern with batteries. Fuel cells are more comparable to a gasoline engine on range and refueling, Markowitz says.
The Mirai can go 312 miles before refueling. That beats the range of any pure battery-electric car sold on the market. For example, Flores says GM will be launching an all-electric Chevy Volt soon with a range of 200 miles when fully charged. A gasoline-powered 2014 Chevrolet Cruze with a combined highway-and-city fuel economy rating of 33 miles per gallon and a 15-gallon gas tank has a range of 495 miles when full. Tesla's Model S has a 270-mile range.
The natural gas industry is keeping a close eye on the hydrogen fuel cell market, according to the American Gas Association, which sees hydrogen vehicles and fuel cell electricity as a growth market for gas.
Kathryn Clay, vice president of policy strategy, says the group, which represents gas utilities, thinks that "natural gas has an important role to play in the transition to hydrogen."
The boon in shale gas development through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made the primary source of hydrogen for zero-emission fuel cells abundant and cheap.
Clay said the gas industry is also building out refueling infrastructure for natural gas vehicles, which could easily be converted to supply hydrogen once fuel cell vehicles start arriving. Still, she admits both natural gas vehicles and hydrogen are "niche markets."