July 2, 2013 at 11:58 AM ET
General Motors and Honda are teaming up to bring zero-emission hydrogen fuel-cell technology to the mass market by the end of the decade, the makers announced Tuesday morning.
Both GM and Honda have started fielding small test fleets of hydrogen-powered vehicles – as have competitors Toyota and Mercedes-Benz – but the goal of the new effort is to resolve technical hurdles while driving costs down. The car makers also hope that by committing to fuel cell technology they will encourage the energy industry to expand the availability of hydrogen, which could warm drivers to the idea.
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“The widespread use of future fuel cell vehicles requires a significant advance in cost reduction … and in the refueling infrastructure that will support them,” Tetsuo Iwamura, president of American Honda Motor Co., said during a joint press conference in New York City. “Two companies can do more together than the simple sum of our individual efforts.”
GM's efforts have so far resulted in a test fleet of 119 fuel cell vehicles, part of Project Driveway, designed to see how they would perform in the real world. Honda has leased 85 FCX and FCX fuel-cell vehicles for a similar day-to-day research program.
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Hydrogen is the lightest element and it produces essentially no emissions when burned or used in a device called a fuel cell stack. GM, Honda and other automakers have been focusing on fuel cell stacks, which combine hydrogen and oxygen from the atmosphere in the presence of a platinum catalyst. The result is a steady flow of electric current, with water vapor emitted from the vehicle’s tailpipe.
Experts like to describe a fuel cell as a “refillable battery.” The electricity produced can power electric motors like battery-electric vehicles.
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Unlike batteries, however, a fuel cell vehicle’s hydrogen tank can be refilled almost as quickly as a conventional gas tank – if there’s a service station nearby. Unfortunately, there are just 10 open to consumers in the U.S., most of them – currently 10 – in Southern California, where GM and Honda have been testing the small fleets.
The two makers hope that by teaming up and assuring energy suppliers that they’re serious about mass production, they can speed up the addition of new hydrogen pumps. California aims to have as many as 100 locations available by 2020.
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While GM and Honda know how to make fuel cells, they acknowledge there is plenty of work left to make the technology affordable. Today’s stacks – the equivalent of a gasoline vehicle’s engine – need to be smaller, lighter, less expensive and easier to manufacture.
“The open-ended joint venture is unusual in its breadth; GM and Honda have agreed to share absolutely all their knowledge and patents involving hydrogen power,” GM Vice Chairman Steve Girsky said.
“We’ll achieve this goal through shared expertise, economies of scale and common sourcing strategies,” Girsky, a former Wall Street analyst, said. “We’re talking about a complete sharing of all our respective intellectual properties on the subject.”
The likely result, company sources say, will be a fuel cell stack that they can share by the end of the decade. While the venture is currently limited to the research level, there appears to be support for jointly manufacturing the eventual technology to further reduce costs.
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It remains unclear when fuel cell vehicles will roll out of factories. At one point, GM’s former Chairman Rick Wagoner said he hoped to be in widespread production by the middle of this decade.
Fuel cell technology gained significant momentum in the late 1990s. But that technology lost momentum in favor of battery power. Now that electrification is less popular, there’s renewed interest in hydrogen. Steven Chu, outgoing Obama Administration Energy Secretary has been steering government support back to fuel cell research after curbing it during the president’s first term.
Nonetheless, a growing number of automakers have recently amped up their hydrogen programs. Toyota is showing off a prototype fuel-cell vehicle at the 2013 Ideas Festival and promises to have a hydrogen car on the market by the 2015 model-year. Mercedes is fleet testing its F-Cell model in California, and Hyundai also has expressed plans to market a fuel cell model in the near future.
A growing number of makers are launching partnerships they hope will lower costs, speed up development and overcome the technical obstacles to mass market acceptance.
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