It's amusing to reduce the development of next-generation electric- or hydrogen-powered cars to a binary paper-versus-plastic decision, but the companies making these cars and the infrastructure to support them are hoping there will be room for both. Hydrogen cars, in particular, have had a bumpy road thus far—the Obama administration has been at odds with Congress over whether to fund hydrogen fuel-cell research. Meanwhile, the first commercial models are not expected to hit the road until 2015, a few years after their hybrid and all-electric counterparts.

To help steer hydrogen back into the spotlight, carmaker Daimler, AG, teamed with the German government Wednesday at a press conference hosted in Washington, D.C., by the National Hydrogen Association* to present their case for the continued development of hydrogen fuel cell cars and the infrastructure to support them.

Public perception of late seems to be that battery-powered vehicles will be the key players in displacing gasoline-dependent internal combustion engines, "but we believe that hydrogen will also play a role, and that the two technologies are complementary," Klaus Bonhoff, managing director of Germany's National Organization Hydrogen and Fuel Cells Technology (NOW), said during the event, which Daimler sponsored. The German federal government created NOW, which is largely funded by private sector businesses, to manage hydrogen and other fuel-cell technologies developed by the German National Innovation Program (NIP). "In the public discussion people tend to say that industry is not interested in hydrogen, but it's the opposite. Activities are actually increasing," Bonhoff said.

NOW sees hydrogen cars as a key element in the German government's plans to reduce the nation's carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by 2050. One significant step along the way will be for Germans to be driving vehicles that produce no more than 60 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer by 2030, Bonhoff said, adding that hydrogen-powered cars have the potential to emit as little as 40 grams of CO2 per kilometer. He noted that even highly optimized internal combustion engines are not likely to emit less than 110 grams of CO2 per kilometer.

The hydrogen could come from a number of sources, including renewable energy such as a wind-to-hydrogen system and biofuels. "Hydrogen is a commodity in some industries," Bonhoff said. "We need to figure out how to make it available to the transportation industry."

One of the primary difficulties of introducing to the market an alternative to gas-powered cars—whether powered by a battery or fuel cell—is building up the number of new cars on the road while building out a new fueling infrastructure. Hydrogen supplies could be trucked in initially, but eventually pipelines carrying the fuel to filling stations would be required, Bonhoff said.

Perhaps the main impediment to success is breaking out of the chicken-and-egg cycle: Providers of the hydrogen infrastructure want assurances that there will be a lot of hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road, but carmakers cannot sell the cars without having the infrastructure in place. From Daimler's perspective, "the fueling infrastructure has not become real to the extent that we have wanted," Ron Grasman, Daimler's manager of fuel-cell vehicles, said at the event. Still, he added that the German government's stimulus plan is expected to fund new hydrogen filling stations to complement the four already located within the country.

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.