While I remain extremely skeptical of the idea of personal hydrogen fuel cell cars, it seems that authorities and companies in Japan are not. A large cross-section of the biggest companies in Japan, including several major auto manufacturers, is apparently now working to do a large-scale buildout of hydrogen fuel cell refueling stations, according to a press release from Toyota.
The 11 companies include: Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Tokyo Gas, Toho Gas, Air Liquide Japan, Toyota Tsusho, JXTG Nippon Oil & Energy, Idemitsu Kosan, Iwatani, and the Development Bank of Japan. So, serious backing, in other words.
Despite my general skepticism of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as a personal transportation solution (there are clearly niche applications in shipping and elsewhere), the situation in Japan is a bit more complicated and it’s not too difficult to see where authorities in the country are coming from.
Japan, as you may have heard, has at this point used up a large majority of its natural resources. Perhaps more importantly, the country is for the large part overpopulated — I’m aware that there’s still space there for houses, but that is a separate issue from overpopulation.
To put that more plainly, the country is now highly dependent upon international trade for many essentials — a precarious situation to be in, especially at a time when many of the looming resource, environmental, and cultural problems that have been fermenting for the last century or so appear to be reaching tipping points. This reality is no doubt part of the reason that authorities there were so happy originally (quite a while back) to embrace nuclear energy — such a technology stands a chance of reducing reliance on international trading partners (though, there are clearly dangers that come with it … especially when you place them in earthquake and tsunami risk zones).
Now that there is a fairly widespread opposition to nuclear energy in Japan, the possibility of utilizing hydrogen fuel seemingly looks pretty appealing (note that hydrogen fuel can technically be produced with solar energy tech, though fairly expensively compared to natural gas reformation).
Also, as the country is essentially just a chain of islands, and none of the major cities are that far from the coast, there simply isn’t the need for cheap fuels to power inland freight/shipping routes like in the US — rather, a great deal can simply be “shipped” by an actual ship. So, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles could perhaps show themselves as being a bit practical.
Hopefully those last few paragraphs explained a bit why the support that companies and authorities in Japan are showing for hydrogen fuel cell tech isn’t quite as ridiculous as it is in the US. Whether or not the tech will prove economically viable in Japan (or will be massively subsidized), I don’t know, but the situation there definitely is a bit different than it is in the US.
Toyota provides a bit more:
The memorandum of understanding is aimed at achieving the acceleration of the construction of hydrogen stations in the current early stage of FCV commercialization using an “all Japan” approach centered on collaboration among the 11 companies. It stems from the Japanese government’s “Strategic Roadmap for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells”*1 (revised on March 22, 2016), which targets a total of 160 operational hydrogen stations and 40,000 in-use FCVs by fiscal 2020.
Recognizing the challenges facing the hydrogen station business in early-stage commercialization of FCVs, the memorandum of understanding is based on the idea that the companies concerned should cooperate and fulfill their respective roles*2 to achieve the strategic development of hydrogen stations for maximizing FCV demand and to contribute to the steady popularization of FCVs.
As a specific form of such cooperation, the 11 companies will consider establishing a new company within 2017. The new company would aim to: 1) achieve steady construction of hydrogen stations by implementing measures to support hydrogen-station construction and operation, and 2) achieve wider use of FCVs and the independence of the hydrogen station business through activities for reducing costs, including governmental review of regulations, and activities for improving operational efficiencies, thus contributing to the realization of a hydrogen society in Japan.
The 11 companies will consider ways for broad participation by other companies in the future and will disseminate information appropriately.