For almost two decades, fuel-cell electric vehicles have been another five years away. That is, until now, according to major automakers.

Hyundai Motor Co. announced in November that it will begin offering a fuel-cell version of the Tucson crossover this spring, making it the first mass-market, federally certified hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the United States.

Steady advances in fuel-cell technology, new opportunities for hydrogen production and a growing commitment to building hydrogen infrastructure have led many major automakers to believe "this is the moment" for the next generation of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, said Mike O'Brien, vice president of product and corporate planning for Hyundai.

"Today, the hydrogen fuel cell is no longer a research project; it is a meaningful choice," O'Brien said yesterday on the floor of the Washington Auto Show.

Hyundai will offer the fuel-cell Tucson for lease at $499 per month with a $2,999 down payment, which includes all of the fuel and all of the service for the lifetime of the car. The company is now selecting customers based on their access to hydrogen fueling infrastructure.

But this is not yet a full-scale retail launch of the car. The vehicle will be available in low numbers to start, O'Brien admitted. But, he added, "this is not some project to be started for a few headlines and then dropped. Our production capacity will build over the next few years; with the growth of the hydrogen fuel stations, so will the demand for this cutting-edge technology grow, as well."

Toyota Motor Corp. and Honda Motor Co. have also pledged to offer next-generation fuel-cell vehicles set to launch in 2015.

Moniz sees DOE drive to push development
After announcing $50 million in funding for advanced transportation technologies at the auto show yesterday, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz underscored the Energy Department's commitment to bringing fuel-cell technology to market. He also hinted that DOE could launch a new manufacturing innovation institute that would help to further reduce the cost of fuel cells.

With fuel cells, as with batteries, "there is still the need for substantial cost reduction," Moniz said. "Those are areas we are working on and, frankly ... some of the institutes that we are looking at may help us with some of those issues, including other institutes I have not mentioned, but, for example, an institute looking at how we may substitute -- looking for substitutes for rare and expensive ingredients, for example -- in a fuel cell."

The White House earlier this month announced the first of three manufacturing consortia aimed at boosting energy efficiency and advanced manufacturing (Greenwire, Jan. 15). The two additional institutes are still in the selection process and will be awarded in the coming weeks.

The auto industry has already brought the cost of fuel-cell technology down dramatically over the last two decades. According to Nihar Patel, vice president of North American business strategy for Toyota, the company has reduced the cost of the fuel-cell powertrain by 95 percent since it started testing fuel-cell vehicles on U.S. roads in 2002.

Part of the cost reduction has stemmed from adopting technologies developed for hybrid and electric vehicles, he said. For example, Toyota engineers developed a new converter for the second-generation Prius that raised the overall system voltage, allowing for a reduction in battery size. The same approach has been applied to the fuel cell, where a new converter triples system voltage from the cell to the electric motor, saving weight, space and cost.

A fuel-cell electric vehicle works by converting hydrogen to electricity, producing only heat and water in the process. Hydrogen fuel itself can be developed relatively cheaply from natural gas, or produced from renewable sources of biogas or directly from water through electrolysis.

Driving away range anxiety?
But while fuel-cell vehicles are pushing the technological frontier, they drive like any traditional internal combustion engine vehicle, with a 300-mile range and a refueling time of less than five minutes. "Functionally, this is a regular car," Patel said.

The Toyota concept vehicle even looks like a regular car. It doesn't have a wonky futuristic design; rather, it looks much like the four-door compact cars that are already being driven on U.S. roads.

"Our goal wasn't to reinvent the wheel, just everything necessary to make the wheels turn," Patel said.

By comparison, the Honda next-generation fuel-cell electric vehicle on display last week in Detroit has a bolder, sleeker, space-age look. If Honda's final product has a similar aesthetic, it may have appeal among car enthusiasts.

Bringing this exotic new technology to market has led to multiple partnerships across the highly competitive auto industry. Last year, Honda and General Motors Co. entered into a partnership to develop a next-generation fuel system and hydrogen storage technology in the 2020 time frame. Toyota Motor Corp. and BMW have also formed a strategic partnership on fuel-cell technology. Nissan Motor Co., Daimler AG and Ford Motor Co. have formed a partnership, as well, that could result in a production vehicle as early as 2017.

"It's so hard to launch in high volumes that it makes sense to have partnerships, especially in the area of alternative fuels," said Robert Bienenfeld, senior manager of environment and energy strategy at Honda. These collaborations allow auto-parts suppliers to scale their products while the initial vehicle sales remain low.

The number of fuel-cell vehicles will likely ramp up steadily in the coming years as automakers work toward reaching a corporate average fuel economy target of 54.5 mpg. Auto manufacturers are also required to meet California's goal to have zero-emissions vehicles make up 15.4 percent of the fleet by 2025.

California, which currently has 10 publicly available hydrogen fueling stations, recently approved more than $200 million in funding to build at least 100 fueling stations by 2025. Automakers have said they're concentrating fuel-cell vehicle sales in California, expanding to other states as more hydrogen fueling stations come available.

Infrastructure is the greatest barrier to adoption, according to industry experts. Automakers and fuel providers have been stuck in a chicken-and-egg conundrum, each waiting for either the cars or the stations before launching their product.

"We're ending the debate. We're building the fuel-cell vehicles," said Hyundai's O'Brien. "The chickens are here."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500