GM, Toyota Cool on Fuel Cells

Earlier this week at the Geneva Motor Show, GM and Toyota executives independently expressed that their optimism about hydrogen fuel cells as a power source for mass-market cars had cooled. The revelations are especially significant coming from two of the three companies that have been most bullish on fuel cells over the past decade. (Honda, maker of the FCX fuel-cell prototype of which 100 will soon be tested around the country, is the mum third.) isn’t in the business of saying “I told you so,” but I’m not above it myself, as I hope a record of realistic market views will give shoppers confidence in our counsel. We have not been bashful in our skepticism. The problem, as I’ve expressed it, is that hydrogen is not a fuel but a means of storing and transferring electricity.

This makes the notion of producing the gas from electricity — not to mention distributing it to filling stations that currently don’t exist, dispensing it safely into cars that currently don’t exist and running it through a fuel-cell component that’s ungodly expensive (and unlikely to become inexpensive) — just to turn it back into electricity seem like Rube Goldberg’s nightmare. Why not just put the electricity directly into a battery and call it a day?

It seems GM vice chairman Bob Lutz reached the same conclusion when he said, "If we get lithium-ion [batteries] to 300 miles, then you need to ask yourself, Why do you need fuel cells?" as reported by the Wall Street Journal. I’d even argue that you don’t need to get to a 300-mile battery. The ability to recharge conveniently at home overnight and/or at work — along with the prospect of onboard generators like those in GM’s experimental E-Flex system — greatly diminish the need for such long ranges. In the same article, Toyota president Katusaki Watanabe cited fuel cell and infrastructure costs as obstacles to “the spread of fuel cells in 10 years’ time.”

As recently as June 2005, Toyota was aiming for a $50,000 fuel-cell car by 2015. At that time, GM was predicting a production-ready fuel-cell car equipped with a $5,000 fuel-cell component by 2010. Whether the technology is completely unviable, or just so expensive that the companies don’t want yet another technology that Congress can force them into producing to meet consumption restrictions, is a matter of speculation. Either way, I’m glad to see industry leaders talking sense.

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