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Saturday, January 9, 2010

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2015 is New Magic Date for Fuel Cell Vehicles

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Wishing upon a star or throwing a coin in a well might make dreams come true, but when it comes to fuel cell vehicles, auto industry executives are hoping that chanting in unison will turn hopes into reality. The mantra from execs: "Fuel cell cars for sale by 2015."

Honda FCX Clarity

In the past few weeks, Ford, Toyota and Daimler have expressed and reiterated their commitment to bringing hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles to market in six years, with Honda pushing its target date to 2018.

The US Department of Energy announced that it will be pulling the plug on fuel cell research and development—and California is threatening to slash its spending on building a hydrogen refueling infrastructure—but automakers are holding firm to their new timeline for hydrogen.

    Daimler CEO Dieter Zetsche told Speigel Magazine in March that annual production of fuel cell cars will need to reach 100,000 units to be considered commercially viable, and that vehicle prices could be comparable to "premium" gasoline cars by around 2015.
    Toyota.s spokesperson John Hanson said in June, "Toyota is planning to go ahead with its program in certain world markets by 2015, if not sooner."
    Speaking in June at the Edison Electric Institute conference, Ford CEO Alan Mulally saw 2015 as the date that fuel cell cars would go on sale. Mulally hedged when reminded of the US government.s cut in fuel cell research funding. "That pushes out the timeframe for commercialization," he said.
    At a recent fuel cell conference, GM.s Larry Burns also agreed with the 2015 dates, commenting: "General Motors is committed to developing a hydrogen fuel cell car despite its bankruptcy and a huge cut in (federal) research dollars for the zero-emission (hydrogen) vehicle." Dave Barthmuss, GM's West Coast regional PR manager, said last week, "We don't need any more breakthroughs to bring the [fuel cell] cars into the commercial market by 2015."
    Honda's Steve Ellis, manager of fuel cell vehicle sales and marketing, told an audience at a National Hydrogen Association webinar in June that Honda is looking at 2018 as its magic date, but is already producing the FCX Clarity on a regular production line.

Waiting for a Miracle?

Despite repeated statements pinpointing 2015 for delivering fuel cell cars, automakers acknowledge two major hurdles in reaching that goal: high costs and lack of infrastructure. As Andreas Truckenbrodt, chief executive of the Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation—a Daimler-Ford venture to advance fuel cells for vehicles—said, "Fuel cells work fine. The number one focus is now on cost reductions, and we know how to get there. Do you really think we would be spending billions if we were waiting for a miracle?"

But a miracle might be required for producing and selling fuel cell cars in any significant numbers by 2015. The hydrogen-refueling infrastructure remains a distant, and extremely expensive, dream. The federal government and the State of California are both wavering on previous commitments to spend the required large sums of money on building hydrogen stations—begging the question of who will buy fuel cell cars without knowing where they will find fuel. If the US commitment to this technology wavers, auto companies may shift their focus to more markets, such as Japan and Germany.

Most industry analysts do not expect commercialization of fuel cell cars until 2020, at the earliest. As the move to plug-in cars—plug-in hybrids and electric cars—builds momentum, carmakers that have heavily invested in fuel cell technologies will feel increased pressure to justify the expense and convince their stakeholders that fuel cells are coming sooner than expected.

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