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.
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