Fuel Cells at Center Stage

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In Tokyo on Wednesday, Toyota was the first automaker in the new season of international auto shows to reveal its fresh take on this headline-grabbing technology, quickly followed by Honda and Hyundai in Los Angeles. All three automakers unveiled new design studies intended to signal that fuel-cell vehicles, which produce zero tailpipe pollutants, are ever so close to production. Each concept vehicle demonstrated progress in the efficiency and packaging of their fuel-cell systems, which generate electricity onboard by combining hydrogen and oxygen and emit only water vapor.

What these automakers failed to deliver in terms of specifics they offset with lofty promises of a real and rapidly approaching hydrogen-based future. 

Before you file this news with reports of the imminent arrival of flying cars, consider this: For the last four months, I have been living with fuel-cell technology, logging more than 2,500 miles at the wheel of a Toyota Highlander FCHV-adv test bed. And I took two short test drives of a sedan that the company said would be ready for volume production in about 24 months.

The all-electric Toyota technowonder that visited my driveway was based on a 2008 Highlander midsize crossover. It offered nearly 300 miles of driving range and five-minute fill-ups — a combination that no battery-electric car offers. I drove for days without tailpipe emissions and without depleting the tank. Multiple round-trip journeys from my East Bay home to San Jose or Sacramento were no problem.

Those trips are a challenge for the Nissan Leaf E.V. that I usually drive, which offers 80 miles of real-world range and charging times measured in hours.

“Toyota made a decision — the fuel-cell car is going to be a big part of our future,” John Hanson, a Toyota spokesman, said. “That’s the direction we’re going, big time.”

Toyota is not alone. Four other carmakers — General Motors, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz — are also promising fuel-cell cars in the next few years. They must satisfy California’s zero emission laws, essentially requiring that by 2025 about 15 percent of new cars refuel by plugging into the grid or filling up with hydrogen.

For me, the transition from an E.V. to a fuel-cell car meant trading one refueling limitation for another. My Leaf offers less than a third of the range of the fuel-cell Highlander, but replenishing it at home is as easy and accessible as charging a cellphone. When the tanks in the Highlander were nearing empty, I needed to make a 15-minute drive to the only accessible hydrogen station in Northern California, six miles away in Emeryville.

My first visits to the station, on the block where Pixar makes movies, were a scene you’d expect from one of the studio’s hapless characters. Even after training, my first tries ended with the heavy connector being ejected and falling to the pavement. That was user error; soon enough, I figured out the problem, and topping up with hydrogen gas became routine.

A kilogram, or 2.2 pounds, of hydrogen contains nearly the same amount of energy as a gallon of gasoline. To top up, I added about 4 to 5 kilograms of gaseous hydrogen into tanks at a pressure of 10,000 pounds per square inch. The Highlander traveled about 55 miles on a kilogram. In Emeryville, I paid $12 to $13 a kilogram.

Measured against a baseline of a 2008 Highlander Hybrid, which carried an E.P.A. rating of 27 m.p.g. in the city and 25 on the highway, that’s roughly equivalent to paying $6 for a gallon of gasoline. According to Toyota, full-scale production of hydrogen is projected to drop the cost below the current price of gasoline, but for now E.V.’s that charge from the grid and store the energy in a lithium-ion battery pack operate at a cost-per-mile expense that’s commonly one-third that of filling up a fuel-cell vehicle with hydrogen.

Some aspects of the 2008 fuel-cell Highlander are by now outdated, so Toyota gave me two turns, once in May and again in September, in a test vehicle that it says is more representative of the sedan it will offer in 2015. This mule, which had its fuel-cell powertrain installed in the body of a Lexus HS 250h — a hybrid model that has been discontinued — used zip ties and gaffer’s tape to hold together prototype parts and diagnostic equipment. But it gave a sportier drive than the Highlander. The production car will carry a Toyota badge.

All electric cars, whether drawing their energy from batteries or fuel cells, offer impressive low-speed response and near-silent operation. An unexpected exception in a fuel-cell car is the hiss of an air compressor, which pumps oxygen from the atmosphere to the fuel cell.

The main challenge facing Toyota engineers, however, is the vehicle’s price.

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