More Hydrogen Vehicle Analysis

This outstanding and thorough Wall Street Journal article (subscription required) provides a great overview of the issues involved in hydrogen vehicle research and commercialization. The article focuses particularly on the chicken-and-egg problem of the simultaneous evolution of a technology (the engine) and a complementary technology (the fueling infrastructure):

Larry Burns, GM’s top technology guru, says the auto maker already has spent nearly a billion dollars trying to get its fuel-cell prototypes ready for the road. Though experts say no more than 100 fuel-cell-powered passenger vehicles are on the road around the world today, Mr. Burns says GM hopes to sell a million of them a year by the middle of the next decade, which would be about 10% of the company’s total production. He says he’s impatient that oil producers aren’t moving faster to get hydrogen flowing to consumers. “I’m not convinced they’re investing enough,” he says.

The oil companies, for their part, aren’t about to abandon petroleum for hydrogen until they’re convinced they can make money from such a shift. Having seen the auto industry fail to deliver on past promises to roll out large numbers of alternative-fuel cars — from battery-powered electric vehicles to diesels to fuel-cell models — some oil producers are leery. “The verdict is still out on whether hydrogen will ever become a mainstream fuel,” says Buford Lewis, manager of fuels development for Exxon Mobil Corp., which is working with GM on research.

Note also that this quote points out that GM is performing hydrogen research, even before the additional $1.7 billion of federal funding that President Bush wants to commit to subsidize research. This article in the Detroit Free Press discusses the efforts going into R&D for hydrogen storage, on the egg side of the chicken-and-egg problem.

The Wall Street Journal article also picks up on last week’s decision by the California Air Resources Board to eliminate its zero-emission electric vehicle rquirement target (NY Times, registration required).

In 1990, the California Air Resources Board proposed requiring car companies to introduce about 20,000 non-polluting vehicles in the state each year. In January, it dropped the proposal to 10,000. This week, its staff proposed cutting the number to 250. Given the estimated cost of about $1 million per car, a spokesman said, “the feeling was that fuel cells cost so much you clearly can’t demonstrate thousands of them.”

Federal officials are getting a similar message. Last summer, DaimlerChrysler engineers drove a fuel-cell-powered Mercedes-Benz from California to Washington, where they displayed it on the Capitol steps. In a press release, the company likened the trip to Charles Lindbergh’s 1927 trans-Atlantic flight, saying both “conquered landmark endurance challenges that signaled entirely new transportation possibilities to come.”

But DaimlerChrysler’s view was less enthusiastic last month in a written response to the Bush administration, which has proposed toughening federal requirements for automotive fuel economy starting in 2005. According to the company’s comments, technologies such as fuel cells “have no hope, in the near term, of reaching high volume or of making a significant impact” on the average fuel economy of the U.S. auto fleet.

This San Jose Mercury News editorial analyzes California’s move away from its electric vehicle mandate, and correctly points out that the incremental and unpredictable nature of technological change means that thinking more in terms of existing technologies, like hybrid vehicles, can go a long way toward improving air quality.