by Richard T. Stuebi
Recently, Honda announced that it will commercially-unveil a fuel cell vehicle aimed for U.S. drivers, the FCX — not 10 years from now, not 5 years from now, not in 2010, but in 2008. Yes, that’s right: next year, a fuel cell car will be offered by a major auto manufacturer in the U.S.
Last Friday, the USA Today wrote an enthusiastic review after test-driving a prototype FCX. They raved about pretty much everything — from acceleration, to quietness, to interior size, to its styling, to carbon-neutral seat fabrics. It did seem like a pretty nifty car — even more Prius-like than the Prius itself.
Only in passing did the story mention the big bugaboo: where will drivers get the hydrogen to operate the car? Clearly, the main initial market for the FCX will be in California, where a significant effort called the Hydrogen Highway Network is underway to build hydrogen fueling stations across the state.
I’m encouraged by Honda’s decision to introduce a fuel cell car in the U.S. market. I have to admit that I’ve been somewhat pessimistic about fuel cell vehicles for a variety of reasons — not only hydrogen availability on the road, but also hydrogen production economics and environmental issues, fuel cell economics and reliability, and customer acceptance of a new fuel and prime mover for their cars.
Honda acknowledges that the FCX is not going to be accepted or acceptable to the mass-market upon release: production will not be in the millions, and no doubt the self-selecting trial customers will experience some hassles and nuisances that most customers wouldn’t be willing to endure. However, the commitment of Honda to such a public test fleet indicates that they are true believers in the long-term potential for fuel cell vehicles.
If Honda leads the way in tackling the vehicular challenges for fuel cells, and California sets the example on how to roll out hydrogen infrastructure, then it remains for some major player to solve the remaining obstacle to the hydrogen economy: production of hydrogen from renewable energy sources (i.e., carbon-free and limitless fuel) at economically reasonable terms. Who’s it gonna be?