Editorial: Henderson's fuel cell 10X cost comments are out of context
The problem here is that Henderson's numbers are taken out of context and mean nothing in and of themselves. This is a total apples to oranges comparison. The Volt is expected to carry a sticker price of somewhere around $40,000 at launch. That price will be reduced for customers by a federal tax credit of $7,500 along with whatever state incentives are available. However, that does not necessarily reflect the cost to build the extended range EV, which will likely be somewhat higher than $40k at launch. More important to this discussion is the fact that the Volt is also designed and engineered for mass production meaning that it is cheaper in all respects than the Equinox FCV. Keep reading after the jump.
The Equinox FCV is a whole different beast. The 100+ examples that have been built are essentially better finished equivalents of the pre-production prototype Volts that are currently undergoing development and durability testing. These were hand built prototypes with a lot of custom-made parts and the fuel cell system is not at all designed for mass production. The generation 4 fuel cell stack in the Equinox, in particular, is expensive for a number of reasons.
Take a look at the gen 4 and 5 stacks in the above photo. The case of the larger, older design on the right is made up of many individually machined pieces that are bolted together. Each of those pieces is fabricated from an aluminum billet and all the joints have to be sealed. Inside are tubes for the coolant passages and much larger than normal prototype hydrogen injectors. The smaller gen 5 stack has the same output while using half as much hydrogen and the case is cast as a single piece with integral cooling passages just like a conventional engine block. The overall part count of the gen 5 stack has been dramatically reduced. The catalyst coating on the stack plates is also much more even spread thanks to new manufacturing processes and uses less than 40 percent of the platinum content.
Similarly, the hydrogen storage system of the Equinox was hand built and is much more expensive than a design created for mass production. Newer designs like the Honda FCX Clarity that use a single tank rather than the three used in the Equinox are cheaper, lighter and integrate a number of components inside the tank.
Taken together, a car designed around these newer subsystems rapidly begins to approach the cost of something like the Volt if the whole vehicle was engineered for assembly line production. This is even more true if you start to remove the internal combustion range extender and expand the battery to give a purely zero emission vehicle. Getting a battery that would provide the 200+ mile range of a typical fuel cell vehicle gets enormously expensive and heavy.
The pre-production Chevy Volts currently being tested likely cost at least as much to build as the Equinox, but that's part of the development process. Building 80 pre-production cars was a process that took about four months and far more man-hours than any regular production car. That's why automakers are enhancing their up-front simulation work and compressing the number of prototype builds so they don't have to create as many.
The real reason GM is pursuing an architecture like the Volt has as much to do with politics as cost. The cost of the hardware for fuel cell and battery vehicles is converging rapidly. The problem is that there remain stubbornly few hydrogen filling stations and politicians have veered toward what is perceived as the easier infrastructure solution of the plug. That in itself is a whole other discussion.
On a recent segment of Autoline Detroit, GM's VP of research and development Dr. Alan Taub discussed batteries and fuel cells with John McElroy, Paul Eisenstien and myself. Taub reiterated what has been said by Honda, Toyota and Daimler, that battery vehicles will be best suited to small, short range, urban use vehicles with fuel cells providing the longer range full functionality that people often need. The reality is that there is likely to be little difference in the ultimate cost of either a plug or hydrogen infrastructure and we will probably want some of both in the long term. For now, though, comparing the cost of the Volt and the Equinox fuel cell is an irrelevant argument, and Henderson (or the WaPo) should have made that more clear.
- Our favorite reveals from the LA Auto Show
- You can probably get a great deal on a new Fiat
- 2016 Holiday Gift Guide
- Is it time to buy a Pontiac Aztek?
- Fastest-depreciating cars in the United States
- Most and least efficient car companies