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Published on September 15th, 2014 | by Steve Hanley


Volkswagen: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Hopeless Outside Of Japan

September 15th, 2014 by  

Editor’s Note: A number of auto company execs have stated that hydrogen fuel cell cars are hopeless compared to battery-electrics (for fundamental economic and efficiency reasons, not even to mention their environmental downsides), such as: Tesla’s Elon Musk, Renault-Nissan’s Carlos Ghosn, and Volkswagen’s Rudolf Krebs. Nonetheless, a couple of auto companies still act like hydrogen fuel cell cars have a future (and I do think “act” is the correct term there). With a government subsidy of ~$30,000, we may actually see some sales of hydrogen fuel cell cars in Japan, but what other countries are going to provide insane subsidies for inherently inferior technology? Shigeru Shoji, President of Volkswagen Group Japan, recently put out some harsh comments for any fans or manufacturers of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Steve has more details in the GAS2 repost below.

Hydrogen Cars Will Struggle Outside Of Japan


Shigeru Shoji, President of Volkswagen Group Japan, says that hydrogen cars will only be successful in the Japanese market because of extensive government subsidies – up to $28,500 per fuel cell vehicle – and assistance in building the infrastructure needed for hydrogen distribution. He believes hydrogen cars will not make it in the marketplace in other countries where the government is not willing to make such major investments to support a hydrogen economy.

Shoji recently told Bloomberg News that the commitment by Toyota and the Japanese government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles is just another example of “the Galapagos Syndrome” that plagues Japanese manufacturing – a pattern of building products that are only suitable for the Japanese home market.

Such stinging criticism drew a rebuke from Toyota. Company spokesman Dion Corbett says such massive support from the government is necessary to get hydrogen technology out of the laboratory and into the marketplace. He believes hydrogen will have a bright future not only in Japan but in Europe, California and the East Coast of America as well. Ford CEO Alan Mulally told Bloomberg recently to expect more hydrogen cars in the coming years.

In the meantime, Volkswagen is keeping an eye on Toyota and the hydrogen economy in Japan. VW Japan spokesperson Yasuo Maruta says it’s goal is to be no more than 3 years behind in fuel cell technology in case hydrogen power becomes more viable. However, even Toyota admits that a full tank of hydrogen fuel will cost $50 to begin with, though may eventually settle in the $30 range. That’s for 300 miles of driving range, mind you, and only in areas (i.e. SoCal) where hydrogen fuel stations are.

While both hydrogen and battery advocates claim their system is the most environmentally friendly, the truth is that both rely heavily on fracking. Why? Because hydrogen is made primarily from natural gas and most electricity is generated by natural gas, at least in the US.  And fracking is what makes the abundance of low cost natural gas we enjoy at the moment possible. The road to emissions free driving that doesn’t pollute the environment is an illusion if fracking is its foundation.

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About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

  • GuilleKnows

    VW will eat its words. The main issue with them (VW) is their inability to reach Toyota’s point of development. The curious thing is, in both technologies, electric and hydrogen Toyota is several steps forward.

  • GuilleKnows

    VW will eat its words. The main issue with them (VW) is their inability to reach Toyota’s point of development. The curious thing is, in both technologies, electric and hydrogen Toyota is several steps ahead.

  • Brisingr6

    Hydrogen fuel cells are at least 2.5 times more efficient than internal combustion engines

    • Bob_Wallace

      Being better may not be good enough.

      In a race coming in second is better than everyone else except for the person who came in first.

  • Watchman1872

    The first gas stations consisted of a manually operated pump that was used to pump a specific amount of gas from a glass container on top. It was then gravity-fed to the vehicle. That’s a pretty small investment to start a business, compared to H2 sales and distribution. And, the pumps already existed before cars were invented. They had already been invented and were being used to dispense kerosene for lamps.

    And, at the time, gasoline was a waste product of little or no monetary value that the oil companies were burning off. So, they had a vested interest in helping develop a market for it.

    When the gasoline engine came along, it was really the only practical power source available. Steam cars were dangerous due to boiler explosions, still required kerosene or gas to power them, and were time-consuming to power up. And battery technology, limited range, and limited places to charge them made electric cars totally impractical in the then largely un-electrified America.

    Without massive government subsidies, which many people like me oppose, with the current technology, I just don’t see how H2 fuel cells are economically viable now or in the near future. Most people are more interested in affordable transportation than they are in paying to save the planet.

    So, in short, the gasoline engine had no real competition. The infrastructure to operate them was simple, cheap, and already existed. Gas engined cars took off because, unlike H2 FCEV’s, there were no practical competing technologies. In other words, people had no good reason to buy anything else.

  • Tim Z

    Hydrogen is an interesting fuel. It’s great we are exploring this right now because in the short future we won’t have fossil-fuels on a wide scale as we do now, so it makes sense to have something in place to take over that burden.

  • Mopey

    Another hit piece on CleanTechnica. You guys were silent for a while, glad you’re back bashing FCEVs. My news feed was lacking negative hydrogen stories…

    As usual, all BS. Even the summary got it wrong. Not a couple of auto manufacturers believe in FCEVs, it’s most of them. Only a couple believe BEVs will be the best approach.

    You guys are “reporting” news the same way Fox News is reporting news. It’s sad, really.

    • Bob_Wallace

      How about giving us a list of all the car companies that are going to bring a FCEV to market between now and 2017?

      And a list of those car companies which, as you claim, believe that FCEVs will be the best approach?

      I’ve missed that news. Please catch me up.

  • gendotte

    The thing about hydrogen is that it can be made in your back yard with a solar panel. When the price of hydrogen therefor becomes essentially free, why not? For the 10% of the time you drive beyond your range, then pay for a bit of fuel – from a solar powered dispensary.

    • Bob_Wallace

      That’s true.

      Of course you’ll have to buy the electrolysis and compression/storage equipment.

      And you’ll have to install more than 2x as many solar panels as you’d need to drive the same distance in an EV.

      But other than the additional cost, it’s essentially free.

      • Mopey

        What do you need storage for at home unless you run your house on a fuel cell microCHP system? Otherwise, the refueler can compress the hydrogen and refuel overnight.

        And your car will go 300+ miles, not only 30 miles with a regular plug-in EV. Your range is a lot better, Bob.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Perhaps you should read before writing. Start with the first sentence in this conversation…

          “The thing about hydrogen is that it can be made in your back yard with a solar panel.”

          And perhaps you should exercise your bias in a less extreme fashion. ” only 30 miles with a regular plug-in EV”.

          Yes, range may be better with FCEVs. We don’t actually know since there are none for sale yet. We do have the Tesla S which is an EV with a 265 mile range. It’s a luxury car with a sales price not very different than what we’re expecting to see for a non-luxury FCEV model.

          Of course that extra 35 miles of range will come at a very much higher per mile operating cost, but that may not bother you. Most people wouldn’t enjoy paying significantly more per mile.

          • Mopey

            Solar panels produce electricity during the day, feeding it to the grid and using grid electricity at night. At least that’s the norm.

            Maybe you didn’t know that, but that’s how the grid works unless you’re islanded, which requires a good amount of capital. Naturally, a Tesla owner can do that, unless, of course, you’re charging your Tesla with moonlight when recharging at night. Judging from the BEV bias in this forum, I’d not be surprised if someone states they do that.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Mopey, please don’t act like a child.

  • Volkswagen, which makes no hydrogen cars, says sales are a struggle.

    Get on that, would you?

    • Bob_Wallace

      Volkswagen, a very successful car manufacturer has done the math and says hydrogen cars will struggle outside of Japan. (Where it looks like the government will prop them up.)

      Probably not surprising that Volkswagen is making no FCEVs, eh? Why spend money making something likely to fail?

  • Wiggletoes

    There is a fuel cell that when mass produced would cost
    about the same as a diesel engine of the same capacity, is good for about 300,000 miles, and gets about 3 times the mileage of conventional cars http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/06/acal-20130627.html but pictures of the first car with this engine is available https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RqLpqR0SPnQ.

    • Bob_Wallace

      How do you get to “mass produced”, ~500,000 FCEVs per year, when the FCEVs would cost a lot more than EVs and cost more than twice as much per mile to drive?

      Where do you find a half million H2 fuel cell advocates per year, over a few years, who would willing pay a hefty premium in order to bring down the cost of FCEVs?

      A company does not show up at the office one day and start mass producing something unless there’s a market that’s going to purchase it.

      • Wiggletoes

        Production has already begun in renewable energy storage service
        for Germany where their solar energy generation needs storage for off peak usage. Then Plug Power and/or Ballard needs to start using them in the forklift, mining, airport maintenance, etc. industries, and then they need to be used in place of emergency generators in
        buildings where they are switched for peak shaving/ heating hotwater during the winter or major auto makers can just start making them for private fleets like Comcast, AT&T, FedEx, UPS, delivery trucks, etc., city dump trucks, fire trucks, buses, police cars, etc., taxi’s.

        • Bob_Wallace

          I can’t see what any of all that has to do with creating “mass production” of FCEVs.

          • Wiggletoes

            The examples explain the mass production of a new engine for the 21st century; a fuel cell engine. Cars can be configured to use them as in the first example of a fuel cell car with much more acceleration than any current
            production car (under 3 seconds to 60 mph), top speed of 215 mph, and a driving range of 370 miles I think. Its past
            time we move on to a 21st century engine to replace diesels and gasoline (ICE’s); a higher efficiency engine for the future.

          • Philip W

            And why would I need such acceleration and top speed in an everyday car? You can´t drive 346km/h not even on our Autobahn.
            Those 21st century engines are electrical engines, no doubt about that. Fuel cell engines will have it´s use, but not in our consumer cars.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Fuel cells are not engines. They are a way to turn energy stored chemically into electricity. That electricity is then used to run an electric motor.

            You seem to not grasp that one cannot just start making 500,000 FCEVs a year in order to achieve economies of scale. It takes the ability to sell that many cars per year to bring the price down.

          • Sheldon A Harrison

            It will not take 1/2 million units to start the process of cost reduction. The projected fuel cell cost curve is quite steep with the first 10 to 50 thousand bringing about the geatest reduction in prices. From the graphs that I have seen, costs could easily fall to below $100 per peak KW at volumes as low as 25,000. The same slope cannot be said for batteries which are already an established industry.

      • Roger Pham

        Ome of the answer could depend on almost $30,000 subsidy per FVEV, by the Japanese Gov, who is building 100 H2 stations in Japan to be completed in time for commercial release of FCEV’s. That ought to bring down the cost of each new FCEV from $70,000 to $40,000. Then, if needed, Toyota can reach into their deep pocket and pull out another subsidy of ~ $10,000 per vehicle, and then the cost of each FCEV will be $30,000, or competitive with ICEV’s.

        Well, let’s see, $30k x 500k = 15,000k^2, or $15 B… to wean Japan off oil dependency, which is peanut in comparison to what the American Gov spent to pay for the last two oil wars costing Trillions USD.

        As for Toyota, 500k x 10k = $5 B, if over 5 years, is only $1 B per year, which isn’ t much for a company with annual profit of
        $10-20 B, a small price to pay for market dominance in vital technologies to wean surface transportation off petroleum, and building the foundation of the H2 economy in order to allow humanity to wean off fossil fuel completely altogether! This is done by being able to store surplus RE in the form of H2, in springs and falls for use in winters in residential-bsed fuel cells for combined heat and power generation. Imagine tens of millions of Japanese home with home-based FC made by Toyota and Honda etc…a very big market, indeed.

        America, Europe, and China, with their large land mass, do not need the H2 economy the way Japan and Korea need the H2 economy. With the large land mass, the wind is always blowing somewhere, and with large desert areas, reliable solar energy is always available even in winters. The dire need to use H2 as massive seasonal-scale medium to store excess RE will be less in the USA, Europe, and China. Thus, we see much bigger emphasis in USA and China on BEV and PHEV instead of FCEV.

        • Bob_Wallace

          Japan registers about 4.5 million new cars a year.

          You really think one out of nine buyers would purchase a FCEV? That would be quite a feat.

  • Kyle Field

    I hope this doesn’t blow up into another debate…but anyhow.

    From a purely financial perspective (cost per mile), I simply don’t understand why anyone would consider FCEVs even at parity with pure EVs. Add to that, the requirement for completely new infrastructure (hydro fill stations), new distribution, etc and it seems to fall apart fairly quickly.

    • Mopey

      Except for much better range and refueling, as well as applicability to all vehicle types, including 18 wheelers, transit buses and the like… You know, not niche products!

      • Kyle Field

        Odd…I don’t hear about any FCEV powered 18 wheelers, buses or the like making it on the road…but I do see the first EV versions actually making it into towns all around the US… (BYD buses, Chicago getting EV trash truck…while not 18 wheelers, still very large…) I guess there’s something to say for EVs already having infrastructure in every town/building/home in the US vs almost no FCEV infrastructure.

        Batteries at this size and application are in their infancy…give them a few years and some scale and 500mi/charge will be feasible. Oh, and the existing 100mi range meets the needs of 90%+ of driving…so that’s something.

  • Kevin McKinney

    Gotta say, $50 for 300 miles is pretty comparable to what I pay now–though I certainly expect better from the next vehicle.

    • Offgridman

      So assuming 3.50/gallon you are only getting a little less than 15 mpg? Or are you including costs other than fuel?
      Even my twenty year old luxury car gets 25-27 mpg, so over six hundred miles when filling the tank for 70-80$, and 35-40$ for 300+ miles to compare with the fool cell in the article.
      No offense, but I think you are right and need to consider an at least new to you vehicle just for the gas savings, if an electric isn’t in your budget yet.

      • Kevin McKinney

        I did say “comparable!”

        I get about 300 miles out of a 14 gallon tank, depending on the driving mix, and paid roughly $44 the other day to fill up.

        OTOH, there’s 200k, nearly, on the odometer.

        • Offgridman

          Therein lies the problem, a brand new fuel cell vehicle that is being sold at a premium price will come with a fuel cost per mile that is only comparable with your older low mpg gas vehicle. Why would anyone buy them unless like in Japan the government subsidizes forty percent of the purchase price.

  • The Hydrogenie

    Just because most hydrogen has been made from natural gas in the past does not mean that is the way it must be made in the future.



    • Offgridman

      Nobody denies that it is possible to get hydrogen from water using solar or wind supplied electricity, but it isn’t a economically viable process right now. Not to mention that we need to concentrate on getting more solar, wind, and other renewables feeding our grid to slow down and eventually stop this big push towards getting our electricity from natural gas and the concurrent problems of fracking.
      So who is behind the current push for fuel cell vehicles, is it really people or companies that are concerned about the ecological effects of our transportation system. Or could it be (as I think more likely) the fossil fuel companies that are trying to keep people in cars that have to go to their stations (hydrogen instead of gas or diesel) for a frequent fill up to stay moving. Thus increasing the demand for natural gas supplied hydrogen and keeping their profit model viable.
      Yes there can be a place for fuel cell powered vehicles in the future, but most likely that will be in the transport and trucking vehicles that follow regular routes and reduce the need for a widespread hydrogen network. But until we can provide that hydrogen from renewable powered sources what is the sense of building a hydrogen fueling network that will just increase the demand for natural gas to keep it supplied?

      • Brokelyn

        The fact that George Bush touted hydrogen as the future was very strange. There are just too many issues with hydrogen including getting the fuel to it users. But oil companies would still lose out to natural gas in a hydrogen economy.
        I suspect that hydrogen is just a fossil fool ruse to keep EVs on the back burner.
        But that doesn’t explain why Japan is hydrogen mad.

        • Watchman1872

          When you can’t identify the merit or logic in some government-supported
          (subsidized) initiative, follow the money trail. See who’s profiting
          from it.

    • Bob_Wallace

      No one has found a route to making H2 as cheap per mile as running on renewable electricity in an EV.

      If there’s some breakthrough technology that makes H2 cheaper than storing electricity in batteries then I would expect we’d go that route.

      However, at this point in time, it’s very much cheaper per mile to drive an EV than to drive a H2 FCEV.

      • James Van Damme

        If I could make H2 at home with solar panels and refuel my car at night, plus heat my house overnight, it might be worth doing. IF I could get cheap fuel cells.

        • Bob_Wallace

          It’s those danged “if”s.

          You’d have to put 2+x times as many panels on your roof compared to what you need for an EV.

          And the cost of the FCEV plus the cost of the H2 equipment would have to be cheaper than the cost of a same-model EV.

    • Joseph Dubeau

      How much fresh water and electricity does the Electrolysis process consume in order to fuel an EV for 100 miles?

      • gendotte

        The water will not matter. Burning the hydrogen will create water as a byproduct. Pretty much a zero sum there.
        And the water doesn’t have to be fresh.

        • Joseph Dubeau

          It’s not a closed system.
          The water is not recovered from the car.
          They don’t use ocean water to create hydrogen.
          The seaweed and star fishes just gum up the pipes.

        • Martin WINLOW

          This is one oft-ignored but really quite serious down-side of the H2 FCV. Imagine its a cold winters day in down-town wherever in the middle of the evening rush hour 20 years form now. You are making your way, on foot, from the office to… wherever you go to get home – all those FCVs humming about you, willy-nilly. Suddenly you are struck by the similarity of the scene before you to the film Bladerunner, as you slop and slosh your way across the junction. It hasn’t rained for the past week! Where’s all this water coming from, FCOL?

          Next week the weather’s-a-changin’ and the temperature is falling, falling… along with all the old folk as they slip and slide on all that ice!

          Oh, yeah! FCVs are the future!

          • gendotte

            Ha! good point. But by then we will all have hover cars and antigrav boots, so it’s a wash.

    • Martin WINLOW

      And so where *is* it going to come from, then? Ah, I see. You are suggesting we could make it from PV-generated electricity. So, please explain why we would want to do that with a ‘panel-to-wheel’ efficiency of about 20% rather than store the electricity in a battery and power a real EV from that instead at an efficiency of about 75% (completely ignoring the *enormous*, relative cost, of course)?

      • gendotte

        You get me a 600 to 1000 minute battery that recharges in 5-10 minutes and we’re on!

  • juxx0r

    Sooner or later, Hydrogen will be judged on it’s efficiency, and that’ll be the end of it for personal transportation.

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