Only movie stars and select consumers have been able to get their hands on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles in the United States over the past few years, but now these zero-emissions cars are poised to bust onto the scene in a big way around 2015 to 2017.
A limited number of fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are available for lease today, and nearly all of them in California, where refueling stations are slowly cropping up.
Earlier this year, model-turned-actress Diane Kruger was spotted in the Mercedes-Benz F-Cell, the company's compact fuel cell car with a combined U.S. EPA rating of 52 mpg and a range of 190 miles per tank of hydrogen.
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis, another famous early adopter, has been seen driving the Honda Motor Co. FCX Clarity, which has an EPA rating of 60 mpg and 240-mile range.
EPA considered hydrogen fuel cell vehicles "game-changing" in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the new federal fuel economy standards, which require light-duty vehicles to reach a fleet average rating of 54.5 mpg by 2025. The agency included credits for automakers to build FCEVs in the regulation in hopes of accelerating their debut on the market.
California has been leading the way on the road to higher fuel economy. State regulations are pushing for 15 percent of the fleet to be zero-emissions vehicles by 2025. And by 2050, the California Air Resources Board projects that most vehicles in the state could run on hydrogen.
FCEVs enjoy many of the benefits of electric drive: They're quiet, handle well and have no tailpipe emissions. Unlike plug-in cars, they aren't limited by size, range or long recharging times. Drivers simply fill up on hydrogen -- where it's available -- and go.
"A lot of focus is on plug-in vehicles because they're being sold today. And yet, from the state and a policy perspective and the automakers' perspective, they realize [electric vehicles] are going to have limited appeal," said Catherine Dunwoody, executive director of the California Fuel Cell Partnership, a public-private collaboration working to promote the commercialization of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.
"They really do see the fuel cell vehicle as an all-electric, zero-emission vehicle that truly replaces the cars we drive today," she said.
50,000 cars in California in 5 years?
Although it's still a long shot, the idea that FCEVs could one day replace conventional gasoline cars seems more likely today than ever before.
Department of Energy research has helped drive down the cost of automotive fuel cells by 80 percent. Results of a national FCEV demonstration found that, although less than the range on a tank of gasoline, the range on a tank of hydrogen has consistently increased, and now thousands of cars are being prepared to hit the market.
After decades of testing, automakers are expected to put 50,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the roads in California by 2017, according to Dunwoody.
Mercedes has said it plans to release a mass-produced FCEV in 2014 and will launch a hydrogen-powered SUV or large sedan in the coming years. Honda global CEO Takanobu Ito said last week that Honda considers the FCEV "the ultimate environmentally responsible vehicle" and will launch an all-new fuel cell electric model in Japan, followed by the United States and Europe starting in 2015.
Jim Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. division, said his company will also add a hydrogen fuel cell sedan to its lineup in 2015 (Greenwire, Aug. 15).