Morgan LifeCar - Click above for a high-res gallery

By far the most interesting title for a presentation here at the Hydrogen + Fuel Cells 2009 conference in Vancouver, British Columbia was the following: "Threats to the introduction of fuel cell vehicles and how to deal with them." I mean, how could we not cover that?

The session was delivered by Paul Andre Nieuwenhuis, assistant director at the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University in Wales. He is also affiliated with BRASS, the Center for Business Relationships Accountability, Sustainability & Society. It is through his BRASS research that he and his partners have been looking at what are the potential pathways for hydrogen cars to come to showroom floors.

Nieuwenhuis and team first identified two core technologies of the car: the internal combustion engine and the all-steel body. Stick with us now. Nieuwenhuis said that the car came about because of the combination of a chassis (the horseless carriage) with an engine. But the real start of the auto age didn't happen until mass production came about. Interestingly, if your mind just called up Henry Ford, nice try.

Ford automated the production of certain key components, Nieuwenhuis said, but he did not make bodies. If you go to an auto plant today, though, what's mostly happening is that the robots and people are making all-steel car bodies. This is why the all-steel body is one of the core technologies of the car. What does this have to do with hydrogen and a threat to FCHVs? Follow us after the jump to find out.

Henry Ford did not build his own bodies. But, if you take Ford's moving production line (1912-1913), add in the mass production of bodies from Budd with Dodge (in 1915), and GM's addition of vehicle finance, trade-ins and changing styles in the following years, you finally have what Nieuwenhuis called the "modern mass-production car paradigm."

But there is a more subtle thing we can (and Nieuwenhuis did) pay attention to: how, throughout the history of the car, electrical systems kept replacing more and more mechanical systems. From the electric self-starter a century ago (which had an impact on the number of female drivers) to the transmission oil pump on the new HS250h, the trend has always been toward more electronics. In a sense, we've always been moving toward the electric car.

Fuel cell vehicles are also steadily moving forward. Nieuwenhuis says that, despite what other say, fuel cell vehicles are pretty much where they should be if we look back at what sorts of things we were promised by 2010-ish (I'm willing to bet it won't take long for one of our readers to find proof that he's wrong on this point). The problem is that, moving forward, the nice things that the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles offer - being able to drive and refuel your car pretty much the same way you've always driven your car - but without the petroleum, are no longer exclusive to HFCVs. He said:

If you talk to ordinary members of the public, not people like us, they expect the future car to be electric and to be plug in. That's how they visualize the car of the future. [A plug-in hybrid] they can plug in, and yet they don't need to rough it in any way. They can still put in their gasoline. [...] Increasingly, the battery electric vehicle, with improved battery technology, is also beginning to encroach on all of those advantages that a fuel cell car can deliver. These are significant threats.

OK, now, back to the all-steel body stuff. With the car becoming more and more an electric device and people realizing there are various ways that the electricity can be delivered (plug-in hybrids, EVs and hydrogen fuel cells), why shouldn't the industry keep on doing what it knows how to do. The "problem," as Nieuwenhuis put it, is the "sunk investments" that the auto industry has in ICE and the all-steel body manufacturing facilities. From an accounting point of view, building PHEVs means that those sunken investments are still useable whereas the other options represent a big risk.

So, how to make sure that fuel cell vehicles can be contenders. Nieuwenhuis proposed a two-step process:
  1. Launch them into strategic niches. Demonstrate feasibility and avoid comprehensive infrastructure needs. See: California.
  2. Make sure that fuel cell vehicles are sexy. "I don't think sticking a fuel cell into a Ford Focus or another existing vehicle is really going to show how radically new this technology is," he said. What should a hydrogen car look like? Well, Nieuwenhuis thinks a GM Hy-wire (see pictures here) or the Morgan Life Car (above, and in the gallery below) are the way to go.
That's a lot to chew on and digest in the comments. You can listen to Nieuwenhuis' talk using the player below or download the MP3 here.

Our travel and lodging for this event were paid for by the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association.

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