Fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, run on stored hydrogen. The fuel cell then converts the hydrogen to electricity.
FCEVs are a niche market; as of the beginning of this year, just over 31,000 hydrogen powered FCEVs had been sold worldwide.
The fuel cells, however, are an intriguing vehicle option as manufacturers try to meet emission standards and build cars that reduce carbon output into the atmosphere.
Unlike conventional internal combustion engine vehicles, the FCEVs produce no harmful tailpipe emissions.
"The potential to decarbonize transportation is arguably the strongest driver for hydrogen technology," said industry expert Joshua Israel in a Tech Briefs-led presentation this month titled Commercial Vehicle Electrification: Batteries or Fuel Cells.
Israel, Market Development Manager at the automotive instrumentation manufacturer HORIBA, expects hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to flourish in industries and applications where electrification is impractical for technical and financial reasons, or in applications that require long range and a short refueling time.
"In terms of applications, this really translates into things like long-haul trucking, marine aviation, construction vehicle, and high-output vehicles that travel great distances and don't potentially return to the same place every evening," said Israel.
How close are we really, though, to FCEVs being more than just a small percentage of the overall vehicle market?
Tech Briefs readers and attendees of the Commercial Vehicle Electrification presentation had the following questions for Israel. Read his edited responses below.
"Which challenge is more insurmountable: Hydrogen vehicle development or the infrastructure deployment?
Joshua Israel: I think the infrastructure part of it might be a bigger challenge. We hear this debate with infrastructure, and it's the same debate for battery electric vehicles: a chicken and egg problem. Which should come first: the infrastructure or the vehicle?
Personally, I'm on the side that believes that the infrastructure is the egg. I believe that the vehicle manufacturers and the consumer cannot be expected to absorb the infrastructure costs in a realistic way. It's one where government subsidization, especially early on, will probably need to be involved in order to jumpstart things. The state of California talks about this quite a bit.
I think a lot of people know how to design vehicles and are already working on them, but no one knows how to do the infrastructure in a financially viable way.
"When do you think is the earliest that we can expect for an FCEV freight truck to come to market?"
Joshua Israel: The numbers that are being thrown out publicly, by the Volvo and Daimler Trucks partnership , [suggest] production in 2025 in Europe for the equivalent of what we call Class 7 and 8 vehicles. We're talking about the next 3 and a half years. The next 5 years would be a certainty, particularly in areas where there is a regulatory environment and a government funding environment that makes those vehicles viable. I think the OEMs will start bringing them to market by 2025 in CA and in Europe.
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