Fuel cells are hailed as the automotive powerplants of the future by many – but they always will be according to some critics, who believe their promise will remain forever unfulfilled.
Still, for many within the industry and without, hydrogen fuel-cell powered vehicles, which have the potential to emit nothing but water, represent the ultimate solution to the automobile emissions problem.
But getting to that future seems at least a decade off, and such has been the case since automakers began taking a serious interest in the powerplants in the mid-1990s. Hence the "always will be" knock.
While many of the vehicle-related challenges related to fuel cells have been addressed, those of cost, hydrogen supply infrastructure and hydrogen sourcing have not been – at least not sufficiently to assure commercial success.
In addition, even the once-accepted environmental advantages of fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have come into question, particularly in comparison to recent advances made with battery-electric vehicles.
Nevertheless, several automakers, with much encouragement from various government agencies, remain intent on bringing FCEVs to market.
This week, General Motors and Honda announced an agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel-cell system and hydrogen storage technologies, aiming for the 2020 time frame. The collaboration expects to succeed by sharing expertise, economies of scale and common sourcing strategies, the companies said.
"Among all zero CO2 emission technologies, fuel-cell electric vehicles have a definitive advantage with range and refueling time that is as good as conventional gasoline cars," said Takanobu Ito, said president & CEO of Honda Motor Co.
"We are convinced this is the best way to develop this important technology, which has the potential to help reduce the dependence on petroleum and establish sustainable mobility," added Dan Akerson, GM chairman and CEO.
In addition to multiple experimental and prototype FCEV's GM built more than 100
Honda began leasing of its FCX fuel-cell vehicle in 2002 and has since deployed 85 vehicles in the U.S. and Japan, including its successor, the FCX Clarity, which was
Honda plans to launch the successor to its FCX Clarity in Japan and the United States in 2015. GM said it will announce its fuel cell production plans at a later date.
They're far from the only players in the game, however.
Earlier this year, Daimler, Ford and the Renault-Nissan signed a three-way agreement for the joint development of common fuel cell systems, which is expected to lead to launch of affordable, mass-market FCEVs as early as 2017.
Daimler and Ford are already joint-venture partners, along with Ballard Power Systems in Automotive Fuel Cell Corporation, which is based in Vancouver B.C.
More recently, Toyota confirmed it intention to release a production FCEV in 2015 as well. Toyota and BMW last year made a deal that includes joint fuel-cell development.
Whether these vehicles prove to be the next step in the evolution of the automobile or fuel cells continue to be the powerplant of the future, only time will tell.