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Will the Fuel Cell Vehicle Kill the Electric Car?

Will the Fuel Cell Vehicle Kill the Electric Car?

Ever since President Obama’s bold 2011 State of the Union address statement that the U.S. would put 1 million advanced technology cars on the road by 2015, we’ve been waiting for electric vehicles (EVs) to make a dent in auto industry. Two long years later, we’re still waiting, and the Department of Energy has quietly backtracked on the bold promise.

Well, a surprise collaboration between automakers Daimler, Ford and Nissan suggests that EVs may have already exhausted their 15 minutes of fame, and a better solution is on the horizon. The trio recently announced a unique three-way agreement for the joint development of common fuel cell system that will speed up availability of true zero-emission technology. Using money and smarts from all three, the companies expect to launch of world’s first affordable, mass-market fuel cell electric vehicles as early as 2017.

Not exactly sure what a fuel cell vehicle is or why you should be excited about this announcement? Daimler explains:

Like today’s battery-electric vehicles, fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) are more efficient than conventional cars, and they use diverse energy sources beyond petroleum. The electricity for an FCEV is produced on board the vehicle in the fuel cell stack where it is generated following an electro-chemical reaction between hydrogen – stored in a purpose-designed, high-pressure tank in the car – and oxygen from the air. The only by-products are water vapor and heat.

Yes, fuel cell vehicles are the zero emissions vehicles we’ve all been dreaming about. But what does this announcement mean for the long-suffering EV market, after all, the all-electric Nissan LEAF has been the company’s bread and butter. And is it really realistic that FCEVs will be available (and affordable) in just four short years?

Well, if (and that’s a big IF) Daimler, Ford and Nissan reach their goal, it’s hard to see why anyone would settle for a plain-old EV when they could have a no-charging-necessary, zero-emission FCEV instead. The only good reason, as always, would be price. But the three companies have specifically stated that they’re going for an affordable, mass-market fuel cell, so it’s safe to assume they’re shooting for what would be an average auto price for 2017.

Although Daimler, Ford and Nissan have more than 60 years of cumulative experience developing FCEVs and their prototypes have logged more than 10 million km in test drives around the world, progress has been slow because of price. It will be interesting to see how the companies will overcome this barrier all of a sudden, when no one seems to have been able to do so for decades.

There’s also another clue that suggests the EV market will continue to grow despite the emergence of FCEVs on the scene: as CNN reports, while “a fuel-cell-powered car can travel much longer distances than battery-powered ones before needing to be refueled…fuel cells can be more readily used in large vehicles like trucks and SUVs.” This slight distinction was confirmed by a Nissan executive during a recent press conference. So it would seem that even if 2017 is the year of the FCEV, regular old electric cars will still be around for some time.

This is good news, and means that all the recent work on smaller, more efficient EV batteries, and solar powered charging stations has not been in vain. Most importantly, the collaboration sends a clear signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry to encourage further development of hydrogen refueling stations and other infrastructure necessary to allow the vehicles to be mass-marketed at some point in the future.

Related Reading:

Top 5 EV-Friendly Cities In The USA

How Does Clean Transportation Work?

Driving A Fuel Cell Forklift

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Image via Thinkstock

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79 comments

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1:35AM PST on Mar 2, 2013

Both are bad really because electricity isn't clean either and going up all the time.

10:01AM PST on Mar 1, 2013

A cheep, green way of making massive amount of hydrogen is needed. Current methods are quite energy intensive.

4:51AM PST on Feb 19, 2013

very interesting. I live in the country and have been waiting for something that people who have to travel any distance to get to groceries etc can use other than regular vehicles.

1:06AM PST on Feb 19, 2013

Very interesting. Thank you.

2:21PM PST on Feb 18, 2013

Thanks for the article.

7:15PM PST on Feb 17, 2013

Just need to kill gas guzzling cars.

11:01AM PST on Feb 17, 2013

Sign and share the White House Petition to Build the Hydrogen Economy:

https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/build-hydrogen-economy/CGJXwTcX

2:56PM PST on Feb 15, 2013

Can't wait to see what they look like and how they will perform!

12:56PM PST on Feb 15, 2013

electric cars or fuel-cell cars,IT DON"T matter, the people who need these types of cars, you know, the people who work for a living" usually underpaid" couldn't afford them, electric cars the cheapest is over $300 a month, i don't know about ,but most of the people i know can't afford, but of course the writers here probably can

8:20AM PST on Feb 15, 2013

Meanwhile, a high excise tax on fossil fuels dedicated to buying fossil fuels as RESERVES maight go a long way in placating fossil fuel firms to reduce their resistance to change.

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