Volkswagen has been tinkering with hydrogen for longer than I can remember. Yesterday, CEO Martin Winterkorn said it was all for naught. Hydrogen fuel cells are unlikely to become a cost-effective way to power cars in the near future, Winterkorn told Automotive News at Volkswagen’s press conference in Wolfsburg. He said it’s not Volkswagen’s fault:
There are people, and some of them comment on TTAC, who are convinced that a hydrogen-powered car is an insanity that will never work, but other people who work at the world’s largest carmakers beg to differ. Today, Ford, Daimler, and the Renault-Nissan Alliance signed a tripartite pact for the joint development of a fuel cell system that promises to be implemented faster, and at lower cost, both to automakers and customers.
Pretty much most of the world’s large automakers plan a commercial launch of fuel cell vehicles in 2015, Hyundai even earlier. One of the hot spots could be Scandinavia. At the end of a month-long hydrogen-powered tour through Europe, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Hyundai signed an agreement to jointly promote fuel cell vehicles in Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Denmark.
Call it synchronicity or call it conspiracy: 2015 is drawing closer, the year when several large global automakers will begin full-scale launches of hydrogen-powered automobiles. Developing new powertrains being costly with unassured payback, automakers form alliances to share the cost. And alliance of Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota to jointly promote hydrogen use would be surprising, they usually are otherwise engaged. However, the four join hands, forces and cars for a grand hydrogen tour through Europe.
The excitement about battery electric vehicles seems to die down amidst disappointing uptake. Range, weight and cost are in the way. At the same time, dormant interest in fuel cell vehicles is being rekindled . A month ago, we had a new look at the technology from the perspective of the Toyota/BMW linkup. Today, The Nikkei [sub] takes a broader view and says that carmakers are in the final lap of the fuel cell race. Let’s have a look at the contestants and where they stand.
The intensified alliance between Toyota and BMW shines a new light on a technology that has been discussed for decades, but that never quite made it: Hydrogen fuel cells. BMW will get access to Toyota’s fuel cell technologies. This most likely spells the end of the fuel cell cooperation between BMW and GM. Let’s take another look.
At the Tokyo Motor Show, the announcement that Toyota and BMW are in cahoots over batteries, diesel engines and possibly more was the talk of the show. Back in Bavaria, BMW displays a promiscuous bent. BMW will cooperate with GM, yes GM, on fuel cells. This at least if the German magazine Wirtschaftswoche is correctly informed.
Sources told Wirtschaftswoche that a cooperation between BMW and GM is as good as done.
In an extended interview with Fareed Zakaria this weekend, GM CEO Dan Akerson repudiated a lot of GM’s previous optimism about hydrogen fuel cell cars, saying
We’re looking at hydrogen fuel cells, which have no carbon emissions, zero. They’re very expensive now, but we’ve, just in the last two years, reduced the price of that technology by $100,000. The car is still too expensive and probably won’t be practical until the 2020-plus period, I don’t know. And then there’s the issue of infrastructure
The DetN points out that GM had previously said that it would have anywhere from 1,000 to “hundreds of thousands” of fuel cell cars on the road by 2010, and most recently said (in 2009) that the technology would be “commercialized” by 2015 and “cost-competitive” by 2020. So, if hydrogen is moving to the back burner, what’s moving up? Akerson revealed that
soon we’ll be introducing “bi-fuel” engines which can burn both compressed natural gas and liquid gasoline.
We’ve seen GM take early steps towards bringing a natural gas-powered car to the road, but this is the first sign from a top executive that a dual-fuel car is a certainty in GM’s near future. By talking down hugely expensive hydrogen cars and talking up cheap natural gas powerplants, Akerson sends a strong message that GM’s green car efforts are moving in a more pragmatic direction. Hit the jump for part two of the interview, in which Akerson talks gas tax and green cars.
With Opel planning to pull itself into the black within the year, the brand’s thoughts are turning from survival to “luxuries” like a flagship model planned for around 20k units starting in the 2016-2017 timeframe. Codenamed “TOL” for “Top Of Line,” the sedan will be designed to highlight one of GM’s many alt-drivetrain technologies, but according to Automotive News [sub], nobody yet seems sure which. Opel labor rep and recent champion of the brand’s forthcoming products Klaus Franz explains:
Already with the our Ampera electric vehicle, we have shown what we are able to do and enjoy an advantage of two to three years compared to the competition
But with the TOL is planned for 2016, Opel may have to dig deep to jump out ahead of the market, which is why a fuel cell-powered electric drivetrain is being considered (also, after decades of FCV research, GM has to build a production model someday). And if the eventual product has a truly ahead-of-its-time drivetrain, and looks as good as last year’s Flextreme Concept (above), this flagship could be an exclamation point on Opel’s turnaround. Unfortunately, neither of these things are a given…
The ominous Hydrogen Year 2015 is popping up again. Last year, Byung Ki Ahn, general manager of Hyundai-Kia’s Fuel Cell Group said: “There are already agreements between car makers such as ourselves and legislators in Europe, North America and Japan to build up to the mass production of fuel cell cars by 2015.” Going through the many files produced in Brussels, you find that in Europe “car manufacturers are getting ready for the commercial production of hydrogen vehicles by 2015.”
View more presentations from US Department of Energy.
The EPA’s National Clean Diesel Campaign and the Department of Energy’s Hydrogen Energy Program have both been defunded in President Obama’s proposed 2012 budget, as the White House focuses on the much– debated goal of putting one million electric cars on the road by 2015. Bloomberg reports The NCDC budget was cut from $80m in 2010 to zero, even though Obama only just reauthorized $100m per year of grants through the program ten days ago. According to Senator Tom Carper, one of the sponsors of that re-authorization, the program
leverages federal dollars so efficiently that for every $1 invested, we get over $13 in health and economic benefits in return
Oh well. Meanwhile, fans of the oil-burners imported by the German brands can relax: the NCDC focused on improving diesel emissions from freight, ports and fleets rather than subsidizing Euro-phile sports sedans. Besides, diesel isn’t the only loser in the rush to push plug-in cars to market: hydrogen is also losing out.
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