Research Fund Authorization Heralds Hydrogen's Return… At Some Point

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

The House has authorized a new package of industry aid in the form of research and development funds for advanced technology vehicles. H.R. 3246 still needs to be funded, but authorization is for up to $2.9b over the next five years. The AP reports that the bill would fund research on “technologies such as batteries for hybrid vehicles, electric cars, hydrogen fuel cells and infrastructure for the electric grid.” Notice something strange there? President Obama had previously moved to cut funding of hydrogen research, a move that DOE spokesfolks at the time explained by gently reminding that “the probability of deploying hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in the next 10 to 20 years is low.”

GM’s outgoing hydrogen-booster-in-chief, outgoing R&D boss Larry Burns, took the opportunity to answer hydrogen haters at a Fastlane webchat. And despite the return of hydrogen research funding, his tone was remarkably subdued. Especially for a long-time hydrogen advocate.

I’ve seen a tendency for people to promote one solution over another. They seem to think the question is batteries vs. fuel cells. Or fuel cells vs. biofuels. I have become convinced we need all three. Like I said earlier, it’s “and” not “or.” Unfortunately, many of the players have a vested interest in a single solution. Therefore, they over-promote one and criticize the others.

Meanwhile, Burns and GM are far from the only ones rediscovering hydrogen post-Obama’s kibosh. Daimler’s Dieter Zetsche personifies the German ambivalence towards battery-electric technology in a BusinessWeek interview. “The chances further down the road seem to me better on the fuel-cell side than on the battery-electric side,” he says. Of course Germany has also committed $2.6b towards creating a 1,000 station hydrogen fueling infrastructure. That helps.

But it’s not just the Germans, who missed the early battery EV boat by ignoring hybrids in favor of diesels, who are talking up hydrogen. “Although batteries are evolving, I don’t think they can catch up with fuel cells,” is Honda CEO Takanobu Ito’s take. And though Toyota debuted its plug-in Prius at the Frankfurt Auto Show, the big T’s US head of advanced technology vehicle planning is even comparing hydrogen favorably to lithium-ion battery plug-ins. Michael O’Brien told the California Air Resource Board [via Green Car Congress]:

Major challenges still face plug-ins in terms of product readiness for market and the state of technology. Longer term shifts in consumers values, new frugality, may delay technology adoption by many consumers. These suggest that there is a limited natural market for plug-in vehicles, and that strong incentives will be needed to push demand to the higher levels, and to address challenges regarding battery technology, cost and suitability.

Meanwhile, “Toyota sees a clear path to the commercial introduction of fuel cell vehicles by 2015. We believe that hydrogen and fuel cells have a potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact of the automobile.” The perennial criticism of hydrogen boosters is that their cleaner future is always well, in the future. That hasn’t changed, but the death of hydrogen seems to have been at least slightly exaggerated.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • European European on Sep 24, 2009

    im amused how these know-it-all americans are avoiding to answer direct questions. its like asking for the time and he answers "5 [s]oranges[/s] bigmacs and i had to eat em all. i was hungry".

  • PeteMoran PeteMoran on Sep 24, 2009

    @ european I'm guessing your "response" is to me. Firstly, I'm Australian, and secondly, I'm too lazy to respond. Get back to us when you understand closed-loop.

  • Varezhka I have still yet to see a Malibu on the road that didn't have a rental sticker. So yeah, GM probably lost money on every one they sold but kept it to boost their CAFE numbers.I'm personally happy that I no longer have to dread being "upgraded" to a Maxima or a Malibu anymore. And thankfully Altima is also on its way out.
  • Tassos Under incompetent, affirmative action hire Mary Barra, GM has been shooting itself in the foot on a daily basis.Whether the Malibu cancellation has been one of these shootings is NOT obvious at all.GM should be run as a PROFITABLE BUSINESS and NOT as an outfit that satisfies everybody and his mother in law's pet preferences.IF the Malibu was UNPROFITABLE, it SHOULD be canceled.More generally, if its SEGMENT is Unprofitable, and HALF the makers cancel their midsize sedans, not only will it lead to the SURVIVAL OF THE FITTEST ones, but the survivors will obviously be more profitable if the LOSERS were kept being produced and the SMALL PIE of midsize sedans would yield slim pickings for every participant.SO NO, I APPROVE of the demise of the unprofitable Malibu, and hope Nissan does the same to the Altima, Hyundai with the SOnata, Mazda with the Mazda 6, and as many others as it takes to make the REMAINING players, like the Excellent, sporty Accord and the Bulletproof Reliable, cheap to maintain CAMRY, more profitable and affordable.
  • GregLocock Car companies can only really sell cars that people who are new car buyers will pay a profitable price for. As it turns out fewer and fewer new car buyers want sedans. Large sedans can be nice to drive, certainly, but the number of new car buyers (the only ones that matter in this discussion) are prepared to sacrifice steering and handling for more obvious things like passenger and cargo space, or even some attempt at off roading. We know US new car buyers don't really care about handling because they fell for FWD in large cars.
  • Slavuta Why is everybody sweating? Like sedans? - go buy one. Better - 2. Let CRV/RAV rust on the dealer lot. I have 3 sedans on the driveway. My neighbor - 2. Neighbors on each of our other side - 8 SUVs.
  • Theflyersfan With sedans, especially, I wonder how many of those sales are to rental fleets. With the exception of the Civic and Accord, there are still rows of sedans mixed in with the RAV4s at every airport rental lot. I doubt the breakdown in sales is publicly published, so who knows... GM isn't out of the sedan business - Cadillac exists and I can't believe I'm typing this but they are actually decent - and I think they are making a huge mistake, especially if there's an extended oil price hike (cough...Iran...cough) and people want smaller and hybrids. But if one is only tied to the quarterly shareholder reports and not trends and the big picture, bad decisions like this get made.