- Feb 3, 2014
Why Toyota's fuel cell play is one big green gamble
Hint: it's the hydrogen
That's a Samuel Beckett play. It's also how many observers, analysts, alt-fuel fans and alt-fuel intenders feel about the arrival of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) – the few of them who are still in the building, that is.
In fact, within the halls of Toyota alone, research on FCVs has been going on for nearly 22 years, meaning that one company's development timeline for FCVs rivals that of the US space program – it was 1945 when Werner von Braun's team began re-assembling Germany's World War II V2 rockets and figuring out how to launch them into space and it wasn't until 1969 when a man set landing gear down on that sunlit lunar quarry. The development of the atom bomb only took half as long, and that's if we go all the way back to when Leó Szilárd patented the mere idea of it, in 1934.
Toyota's hydrogen development timeline rivals that of the US space program.
Carmakers didn't give up on hydrogen in spite of the public having given up on carmakers ever making something of it, so there was a good chance that hydrogen criers announcing the mass-market adoption of periodic chart element number
We've seen and driven Toyota's offering and we all know its success doesn't depend on cross-shopping, showroom dealing and lease sweeteners. So let's take a look at a few of the big issues challenging the hydrogen economy, starting with this: it's been said about the Toyota FCV that it "Offers the same convenience as conventional gasoline vehicles." Which is true. Until you need to fill it up.
The tip of the mountainous issue in two sentences: the Department of Energy says there are ten publicly accessible hydrogen refueling stations in the United States. Nine of them are in California.
Compare the number nine to the number 7,454, which is the tally of publicly accessible electric-car charging stations in the US and obviously doesn't include the number of electrified homes that possess extension cords, and the number 121,446, which is estimated count of our nation's gas stations.
Let's look at the number nine. The site H2stations.org shows seven public stations in Southern California in operation, from Burbank in the north to Newport Beach in the south, 54 miles from Burbank. There's an eighth station at Los Angeles International Airport, but only if you drive a General Motors vehicle. The Honda and Toyota stations, both about 15 miles south of LAX in Torrance, are listed as closed to the public and so not counted here, but we image that isn't be the case if you drive one of their respective fuel cell offerings. Get away from the coasts and you find one center east of downtown at California State University LA, otherwise you're all the way east to Diamond Bar, 43 miles inland, and you'd find another two from there out to Riverside, 70 miles inland.
The point is that even when we talk about Southern California being the primary market for these vehicles because that's where the only real infrastructure is, in truth we're talking about a narrow strip of coastal land and a couple of inland redoubts. And here, where it can take 30 minutes to go five miles, even if we only look at urban dwellers, how far away from that refueling oasis are early adopters willing to be?
How far away from the refueling stations are early adopters willing to be?
One of the touted benefits of FCVs is the driving range – Toyota promises a range of 310 miles and this is one of the prime reasons the company believes hydrogen can beat battery electric cars. But how usable is that range? You couldn't make it from LA to Phoenix, where there's another public station, even if you refilled in Riverside. You couldn't make it from Burbank to any of the stations in the San Francisco area. You could make it to Santa Barbara, 90 miles north of LA, but you'd have to be a stingy driver if your aim was to tour the wine country, since you need 180 miles out of those high-pressure tanks to get you back to a fill-up in Burbank. And if something goes wrong, AAA probably can't help you. These might be some of the reasons Honda has only leased something like 40 examples of its FCX Clarity since 2008.
We don't need to waste any time finding a solution, though, because there's only one and that's a cinch: build more stations. How to make that solution happen, that's where the exorbitant taxes of time, argument, money and angst are being spent.
For the moment, it looks like California is set to match the long-term determination of carmakers like Toyota and Honda. A representative from the California Fuel Cell Partnership said there should be 28 stations ready by the time Toyota's car goes on sale in 2015, and the organization has a road map of 68 stations that "are open, in planning or have funding committed," noting that $65 million in additional money will be devoted to keeping them running until they are profitable. Even with the 68 stations, the only way to make it from LA to San Francisco in an FCV is via the I-5 freeway, because there's a refueling stop planned for the suburbs of a lonely hamlet called Coalinga.
That same year, 2015, could also see the initial expenditure of funds set aside by the passage of Assembly Bill 118 that allocated funding for Assembly Bill 8. AB8 sets aside $20 million per year for ten years for hydrogen infrastructure and supporting projects. Some outlets have said that $100 million of the funds will go to building a "hydrogen superhighway" of 100 stations at a million bucks a pop – with at least a six-minute drive between each station – but the proposal put out to companies that would build the stations projects each unit cost to be $2.5 million. No matter what the price is now, a decade of work should see a steep drop, with the past decade said to have turned in a 25-percent decrease in price each year in infrastructure costs.
California projects each hydrogen station will cost $2.5 million.
While California waits for another state to join it on the one-electron superhighway, it does find hydrogen road-trip comrades in both Europe and Asia. Japan plans to have 100 stations up and running in 2015, with "full scale commercial development and a nationwide hydrogen network by 2030." South Korea has laid out government initiatives to help build out a network. France's Air Liquide and Germany's Linde AG are working together to increase Germany's station count from the current 15 "to 100 by 2017 and 400 by 2023." An Air Liquide exec said that "about 1,000 stations" are what would be needed to provide full coverage in countries like France (about the size of Texas, population of 66 million) or Germany (about the size of New Mexico, population 81 million). That same exec put the cost of a Europe-wide fuel cell infrastructure at 10 billion euros, or $13.7 billion.
Everyone knows that the infrastructure issue isn't just about a lack of physical refueling stations, though. You have to get the hydrogen from some stock source, and the source and method of reformation opens up other environmental issues. Then you have to get the hydrogen to the refueling point by either laying or retrofitting the specialized pipe required. Or you can pipe in natural gas and reform on site, which entails other issues. As for that site, before you can build it you have to get zoning approval, and stations themselves have their own particular requirements.
So why why why hydrogen? Why all this money and effort to develop an exotic powertrain that faces terrific hurdles of money, lack of infrastructure and consumer will just when the internal combustion engine is finally learning some manners and the rise of hybrids, range-extended hybrids and pure EVs has taken yet more gas out of the hydrogen push?
So why why why hydrogen?
Let's be honest about the first reason: regulations. It is impossible to have a conversation about FCVs, pure EVs and range –extended EVs without terms like "regulations," "federal mandates" and "CARB" coming up. That's given rise to another term, "compliance car," the affirmative action of automobiles, an ill-regarded member of the dealership workplace brought on solely for its ability to masquerade as social concern and placate the bureaucracy of quotas.
Yet regulations have only opened the door – California's objective is that greenhouse gas emissions in the state in 2050 will be only 20 percent of what they were in 1990, and the state with more than 33 million registered vehicles wants 1.5 million zero-emissions vehicles on the road by 2025 to help that out. According to a report in Newsday, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont aim to add another 1.8 million zero-emissions vehicles to their registries by that date, for 3.3 million in total.
The regulations don't stipulate how carmakers achieve zero emissions, though, so they could use thorium reactors or goat's milk if they thought those options made sense. It is hydrogen, the subject of automaker research since the 1960s, that they believe has the greatest upside.
As was stated in Part 1, Toyota's says its rationale is ultimately about the business case; the company wouldn't be blasting cannons of money at the technology if it didn't believe it would pay off somehow – nor would Honda, Hyundai, General Motors and Mercedes. Not even Toyota thinks hydrogen power is going to take over the world; rather, it sees it as a viable option, long-term, in the zero-emissions mix.
Toyota is open in its belief that electric cars aren't the best solution – e.g., news reports like "[Toyota Motor Corporation Director and Senior Managing Officer Koei ] Saga is not a big proponent of electric vehicles.... [Toyota] would not have developed the RAV4 EV if it weren't forced to comply with California Air Resources Board regulations," and, "We don't see a market right now for EV and don't see one for two generations, 8-10 years, a car generation. We're waiting for battery technology and volume profitability," and another exec who said, "No one would make an EV if not for mandates."
Toyota doesn't think pure EVs are the most complete solution, either (and Hyundai has its own version of the graph above): range, weight, poor cold-weather performance, long charging times and battery degradation among the prime issues. The $29,000 Nissan Leaf has almost been outsold by the $60,000 Porsche Cayenne this year, thoroughly outsold by the $63,000 Mercedes GL and trounced by the $50,000 BMW 5 Series. Speaking of the BMW, that 5 Series buyer looking for electric luxury could go for a BMW i3 or Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive, spending the same money to sacrifice range, space, capability, convenience and cold-weather performance. The tiny, localized sales of pure EVs support Toyota's thinking for now, as do the public walkbacks of electric car champions like Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and the Obama administration.
We can talk about Tesla, but that's not a fair fight. While it is correct to be just as impressed as astonished at what Tesla's done – and we're fans – that company hasn't passed the OEM test yet; it is selling boutique wares for moneyed early adopters who are ready to excuse issues it might have as they hop in their second or third car. As well, every OEM we've spoken to that's seen what's inside a Model S has said they couldn't build a car the way Tesla does nor use the same kinds of parts in some cases; they simply wouldn't stand up to the demands put on a major manufacturer and to mass-market ownership.
Every OEM we've spoken to has said they couldn't build a car the way Tesla does.
Toyota's position doesn't mean it feels electric cars have no place at all, as its i-Road and car-sharing efforts attest, but it's not the place that many were hoping for – not for the moment. If – or rather, IF – FCVs can gain any momentum once on sale from multiple manufacturers and convince governments and industries to keep spending the time and money to make more room for the technology, there's a chance it can enter the mix. Let's be fair about some of these sums of money, too: compare the $20 million per year that California is setting aside for hydrogen infrastructure to the $3.2 billion set aside in a single year, the 2013-2014 state budget, for the development of a high-speed rail system. Via the FreedomCar initiative, the US government spent $1.7 billion from 2004 to 2008 on fuel cells ($1.2 million was originally allotted) gunning for then-President George W. Bush's aim of getting hydrogen FCVs on sale by 2015. In his 2003 State of the Union address he said, "The first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen and pollution free." Turns out he was right. As for the money, that's $340 million per year for five years, less than the $500 million requested to support Amtrak's infrastructure upgrades in the Fiscal Year 2008 budget alone, out of a total budget of $2.9 trillion - and most of that Amtrak money was intended for the Northeast Corridor between Washington, D.C. and Boston.
It must also be remembered that this is a long-term play for a foothold, with business horizons out to 2030 and beyond. If automakers can really keep it up for sixteen years - and Toyota's already kept it up for 21 - that gives them a decent window to overcome hydrogen's many challenges like lowering the prices of the cars. It might sound crazy, but who, just before the close of 1997, would have predicted or believed the global automotive landscape we have today? There will probably be about 15.5 million cars sold in the US this year, with roughly 90,000 of them expected to be EVs and PHEVs – that's 0.6 percent of the total market. Of those, roughly 20,000 will be accounted for by the Model S, another 12,000 or so will be the Prius PHEV. It has taken us more than a decade to get to this point, by which we mean the arrival of the first Prius hybrid opened the door to a further hybridized and electrified automotive world; it took six years for the original Prius to catch on, and Toyota lost money on them for years. Toyota only wants to produce 5,000 to 10,000 FCVs per year from 2015, and that's its goal for global sales.
Toyota only wants to produce 5,000 to 10,000 FCVs per year from 2015.
Ignoring the infrastructure issue for a moment, FCVs address the drawbacks of electric cars, answer federal mandates that are only going to get more stringent, are expected to be priced competitively in the long-term, are 60- to 70-percent efficient and are said to have a theoretical efficiency of 83 percent – compared to 35- to 40-percent efficiency for the best internal combustion engines on sale today. On top of that, Toyota's position is that it's merely replacing components already used in its EV and PHEVs with the fuel cell stack, and it's been engaged in the production engineering of all three powertrains for ten years.
And Toyota isn't alone. In 2009, on hydrogen's third go-round of only being eight years away, former Obama administration Energy Secretary Steven Chu cut $100 million from funding for FCVs but carmakers complained and Congress put the money back. This year, Daimler, Ford and Renault-Nissan have joined forces to work on fuel cells and plan to reveal something as soon as 2017, BMW and Toyota have a technical partnership and so do General Motors and Honda. A member of the Daimler board went so far as to say, "We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future." Mercedes did offer its F-Cell FCV for lease in Southern California for $849 a month; still, that's quite a statement after German car companies fought hybrids for years – and Audi is still fighting – saying, in effect, 'why do we need all that complexity when we already have diesels?'
Hydrogen currently has zero position in the marketplace and faces obscene hurdles. But if its chances of success were no better than hallucinogenic hypothesizing, we'd think that at least one of the thousands of engineers working in one of those eight global OEMs would have come up with a salable option by now.
As far as Toyota's concerned, it is also important to include the company's vision for fuel cells in an energy matrix beyond cars. Says one of its brochures, "An important element in achieving the wide-spread distribution of FCVs is using hydrogen not only for automobiles, but for social systems as well."
In Japan, and as exemplified in Ecoful Town and its hydrogen refueling operation, Toyota's work with the HyGrid Study Group is looking at how hydrogen can work as one of the energy sources within a grid already utilizing petroleum, natural gas, coal, plants, uranium, hydro, solar, and geothermal electricity generation. Along with the FCV due in 2015, it's running pilot programs with fuel-cell powered forklifts, a third-generation fuel cell bus is due in 2016, it's touting hydrogen as a residential energy source and working with corporate partners on residential co-generation systems for household use, studying how hydrogen could be made from surplus renewable energy, how vehicle-to-grid systems might work and how hydrogen can be used for energy storage on massive scales.
And again, Toyota isn't alone: California has been studying the wide-scale use of hydrogen storage for the state's energy needs for more than ten years, the UK government recently awarded 598,000 pounds (just under a million dollars) into research for a vehicular hydrogen storage system to improve the range of electric cars, Florida is studying hydrogen produced from citrus waste, and the city of Hamburg, Germany awarded a contract to develop a 1 MW hydrogen storage system. Oh, and just in case there's money to be made for you speculators, Forbes has provided a list of 12 hydrogen and fuel cell stocks to watch.
Nevertheless, when (recently departed) Hyundai NA CEO John Krafcik says, "These things are now ready for prime time," that's probably overstating things. More likely is the assessment of analyst Alan Baum, who said, "I see fuel cells as a technology for the decade of the 2020s, with a small but growing ramp-up in the first half of the decade, not unlike what we are seeing now with EVs."
Hydrogen might very well fail in the marketplace for any number of reasons – like a "Big Battery Breakthrough" such as this one recently announced by Sekisui Chemical. Or it might only fail on its first real retail attempt and then come back in some other form later, like the EV1. Or it could end up being a serious, albeit tiny, alt-fuel option in the marketplace for an unknown number of years. No one knows. But if it does fail, it won't be because automakers didn't give it a shot. In spite of the money spent and cars on the way, we don't have to believe that Toyota or any of the other automakers actually believe in hydrogen, but – for the same reason that the Germans finally got into hybrids – they have determined that the tide looks serious enough and promising enough to run with, and they are definitely running. So get ready: the first wave hits later this year.