Daimler has spent more than $1.7 billion on hydrogen car technology to date, Grasman said. The company's entry into this market is the Sprinter, which it plans to make commercially available in 2015. The car has already gone through several iterations over the past several years as hydrogen fuel-cell technology has been developed. The most recent version can go from zero to 100 kilometers in 11.4 seconds, reach a top speed of 170 kilometers per hour, and operate for an estimated 385 kilometers before refueling. Several other car companies, including Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota are also targeting this time frame to roll out hydrogen-powered vehicles.
Germany plans to create an infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles over the next seven-to-10 years via a program called H2Mobility. Grasman said the model that the government is developing could, with some effort, work in the U.S. market, as well. The U.S. has been a leader in hydrogen fuel-cell development in the past and is in a good position to promote this technology moving forward, he added.
Washington itself is divided on whether to commit to hydrogen-powered autos. U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the federal government was cutting funding for hydrogen car development in favor of improved internal combustion engines and plug-in electric hybrids. Chu pointed to the difficulties of creating a hydrogen filling-station infrastructure and developing a long-lasting portable fuel cell as two of the reasons that hydrogen-powered vehicles would take a backseat to electric vehicles and hybrids. This assessment was in stark contrast with the George W. Bush White House, which had committed $1.2 billion on research and development for hydrogen-powered fuel cells.
In October, however, the Senate voted to restore nearly all the money—about $200 million—that the Obama administration was planning to cut. The tug-of-war continues, as the White House's fiscal 2011 budget request would slash funding for hydrogen fuel cells and biofuels.
"We've had a very hard year in the automobile industry, and it might look like there hasn't been much work in fuel cells," Grasman acknowledged. Still, none of the major carmakers have given up their hydrogen programs, because they realize that there is no single solution for replacing internal combustion engines, he added, saying that the plug-in electric car will be a "niche vehicle," whereas hydrogen-powered cars can travel greater distances and refuel faster.
* Editor's Note: The National Hydrogen Association is part of the Partnership for Advancing the Transition to Hydrogen.