The ultimate green machine

More fuel-cell vehicles are hitting the road, but it's still an uphill climb

Published: May 2010

Fuel-cell cars are the Holy Grail of green-car technology. They emit only water from the tailpipe, produce their own electricity for power, and run on hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. And as concern grows over gasoline prices and global warming, you'll be hearing a lot more about them.

Automakers have showcased more than half a dozen new fuel-cell vehicles in the past couple of years. And Honda and General Motors have put more than 250 new fuel-cell vehicles into consumers' hands for extended testing.

But while FCV development is accelerating, there are potholes in the road.

  • Like other prototypes, today's hand-built FCVs can cost a million dollars or more to build. Even if mass produced, it's estimated that current models would cost $500,000 each. So reducing costs is a major goal for the government and automakers.
  • Few hydrogen fueling stations exist, and it will cost billions to build an infrastructure that will make FCVs practical.
  • Critics say that hydrogen is difficult to store and that producing the hydrogen makes FCVs less efficient than other types of alternative vehicles, such as electric or natural-gas-powered cars.

Auto engineers and editors at Consumer Reports have driven most of the latest fuel-cell vehicles, at our Auto Test Center or during automaker demonstrations. And we've talked with dozens of scientists and experts at car companies and at chemical companies that produce hydrogen. We think FCVs are promising. But the United States is a long way from fulfilling the vision many people have of FCVs running on hydrogen produced from renewable sources, freeing the country from the shackles of a petroleum economy. In the near term, FCVs are more likely to run on hydrogen produced from natural gas.

Gaining momentum

Besides emitting no pollutants or greenhouse gases, FCVs are about twice as efficient as gas engines. They also have a longer range than battery-powered electric cars and can be refueled quickly—in 3 to 5 minutes, compared with overnight charging for an electric car.

"Fuel-cell vehicles have no downside in terms of performance, and a lot of upside" in terms of efficiency and low pollution, says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Since the early 1990s, automakers have built more than 500 FCVs for testing. Current models include the Honda FCX, the Chevrolet Sequel and fuel-cell-powered versions of the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge and Focus, Hyundai Santa Fe, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Nissan X-Trail, and Toyota Highlander (called the FCHV).

In addition to fleet testing, Honda has leased its FCX to a few consumers and celebrities in Southern California for a subsidized $500 a month. "I've had fewer problems with it than any other car that I've purchased," says one of them, Jon Spallino, a chief financial officer at a design and build firm in Irvine, Calif. Spallino says he was selected partly because he had owned a Honda Civic GX that ran on natural gas. "Right now there are only limited stations available, so I have to do some planning" for fill-ups, he says. His only minor complaint is that the car leaves a small puddle of water from the tailpipe on his garage floor.

Another driver is Q'Orianka Kilcher, a young actress who played the role of Pocahontas in the movie "The New World." She got hooked on FCVs when she borrowed one for her movie's premiere, and earlier this year she persuaded Honda to let her lease the FCX. "It's really quiet," she says. "When I drive normal cars now, I can't stand the sound and the smell."

The biggest challenges

While the promise of FCVs is tantalizing, the challenges leave some critics doubting they will ever become practical.

Hydrogen production

Hydrogen can be made from water, but it takes a lot of electricity - more power than the fuel cell provides in the end. And a big question is how the electricity will be generated. Using conventional powerplants is appealing in California and other states that generate electricity from relatively clean energy sources such as natural gas, and nuclear, hydro, and wind power. But in much of the country, electricity is generated by burning coal, which produces more carbon dioxide overall than burning gasoline.

The government is funding the development of renewable sources such as solar power. But its limitations will most likely leave this dream decades away.

Currently, hydrogen is primarily produced from natural gas. Some experts say the country already has the capacity to fuel one million FCVs using this method. Because of the efficiency of FCVs compared with gas engines, it would save energy overall, according to a 2005 study by Air Improvement Resource, an engineering company, the Argonne National Laboratory, and GM.

But natural gas is not a renewable resource, and the U.S. currently imports 16 percent of its supply. Natural-gas prices have doubled since 2002, which affects the price of hydrogen. Without subsidies, hydrogen today would sell for about $15 to $20 for the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline, according to Ed Kiczek, senior manager at Air Products and Chemicals, an industrial gas supplier. But with large volumes, he says, prices should drop to about $3.50 to $6. The government is targeting a price of about $2 to $3.

But even at $6, the cost per mile looks competitive; 10 cents vs. 13 cents for an equivalent-size gasoline-powered car. Honda claims its new FCX, for example, gets the equivalent of about 61 mpg.

Range and storage issues

Hydrogen is the lightest element, and it carries very little energy. At a pressure of about 5,000 psi, even with a large hydrogen tank, a typical FCV has a driving range of less than 300 miles. GM and other automakers are working to extend the range by using tanks that hold hydrogen at 10,000 psi.

Few hydrogen stations

Today there are less than 100 hydrogen stations in the U.S., according to the National Hydrogen Association, an industry trade group. And only a few are open to the public.

To kick-start the hydrogen infrastructure, California, Illinois, New York, Texas, and British Columbia, have launched initiatives to build "hydrogen highways" that would support FCVs. They will initially be centered in major metro areas and will extend out from there.

Joan Ogden, director of the Sustainable Transportation Energy Pathways project at UC Davis, estimates it will cost $12 billion to $20 billion between 2012 and 2025 to build enough stations along major interstate highways to allow FCVs to travel across the country.

Energy companies are optimistic that once universal codes and standards are adopted, stations can be built quickly. "Our intention is that we'd have a sufficient number of stations to support a rollout of fuel-cell cars between now and 2020," says David Austgen, a general manager at Shell Hydrogen.

Vehicle costs

Experts say the price of FCVs would have to be comparable with that of conventional cars before consumers would buy them. Bill Reinert, national manager of Toyota's Advanced Technologies Group, expects that improvements in materials and production will bring costs in line.

An example of that is Honda's second-generation FCX, which will cost less than half as much to produce as the first one did, says Chris Naughton, a Honda spokesman. Still, the first FCVs may sell at luxury-car prices.

Safety concerns

Some people worry about driving a car with a tank of pressurized, flammable hydrogen gas. But experts claim that with proper care, hydrogen can be at least as safe as gasoline. In testing, the storage tanks are subjected to drop tests, vibration, fires, and bullets, and so far there have been no red flags, says Sunita Satyapal, a team leader for hydrogen storage at the Department of Energy.

Hydrogen "diffuses to the point that it's hard to have a safety issue," says Keith Wipke, a senior engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. For example, hydrogen won't pool underneath a car after an accident, as does gasoline.

Still, leaks can occur. And if hydrogen gas accumulates in a closed space, it could be ignited. Some experts have proposed that hydrogen detectors be developed to warn people of leaks.

The road ahead

In 2015 the Department of Energy expects to make a decision with automakers and energy companies about whether FCVs can be made commercially viable. If things look good, the first FCVs offered for sale could be introduced soon after.

Some automakers have already announced plans to commercialize FCVs before 2020. But some experts say it will take a critical mass of 500,000 FCVs to bring costs in line. That could take until 2025 or 2030.

For flexibility, FCVs will be able to be powered by either a hydrogen fuel cell or a battery pack that, in some, can be charged by plugging into electrical outlets, says Scott Samuelsen, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and environmental engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

The next few years will determine whether FCVs are headed for the open highway or a dead end. In the meantime, weaning America off fossil fuels will take more than FCVs. Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, thinks the U.S. needs to pursue higher fuel-economy standards for gasoline vehicles, as well as alternative vehicles powered by clean diesel, biofuels, and batteries. It will take a variety of efforts to lead the country out of the petroleum era and into the next energy age.

Behind the wheel of a fuel-cell car

The first thing you notice when you turn on an FCV is what's not there. There's only quiet instead of the rev of an engine. Lights on the dash are all that tell you it's ready to go. As you press on the accelerator and the car begins to move, you hear the whine of the electric motor, which sounds a bit like a muted hair dryer. Because electric motors provide all of their torque immediately upon starting, the cars tend to have strong acceleration from a standstill. We found the new Honda FCX's acceleration to be similar to a four-cylinder Honda Accord's.

Compared with conventional cars, FCVs remain very quiet while driving even at highway speeds, with wind and tire noise the most dominant sounds. We've also found the latest models to be well developed, feeling as comfortably familiar inside as a conventional car. In some models, the hydrogen tanks can take up a lot of cargo space. Others, such as the Chevrolet Sequel, shown here, house them out of the way, under the floor.

Water can drip from the exhaust pipe. But that can be seen as a friendly reminder that no pollutants are accompanying it.

How an FCV works

Fuel-cell vehicles are basically electric cars that use hydrogen fuel cells to generate electricity for power, with water or water vapor being the only byproduct. FCVs don't emit pollution or greenhouse gases and are about twice as efficient as gasoline engines.

A typical FCV holds hydrogen gas in a tank. It feeds the fuel cells, which combine the hydrogen with oxygen from the air in a chemical reaction to create electricity. That runs the electric motor, which turns the wheels.

Many newer FCVs have backup batteries or capacitors for an extra burst of acceleration when needed and to store energy recaptured during braking.

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