Cynics in the auto industry love to say fuel cell vehicles (FCV) are 20 years away from production—and always will be 20 years away. But that prediction may be averted if a new relationship between General Motors and Honda bears fruit.
The two automakers on July 2 announced a master technology agreement to jointly develop a common hydrogen fuel cell to power vehicles made by both companies by the 2020 timeframe. Additionally, GM and Honda will work on advanced hydrogen storage systems and expanding the hydrogen refueling infrastructure, the latter in partnership with state and local governments and the energy industry.
Speaking at the announcement in New York, GM Vice Chaiman Steven Girsky and Honda Motor Co. Executive Vice President Tetsuo Iwamura said that by collaborating on a common fuel-cell stack design and system components, they will be able to lower costs and reduce development time of the fuel cell, which employs an electro-chemical process to convert hydrogen gas stored on the vehicle and oxygen into electricity to power traction motors to drive the wheels.
FCVs offer refueling time and operating range equivalent to gasoline-powered vehicles, greatly exceeding battery EVs in these metrics, which are critical to consumer acceptance of alternative fuel vehicles. Under most regulatory standards they qualify as zero-emission vehicles because they emit only small amounts of water vapor.
Additionally, FCVs are expected to play a key role in the U.S. Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations set for 2017 to 2025. The so-called “off-cycle credits” in the CAFE rules allow each FCV to count as 1.75 conventional vehicles in 2020, and 1.5 vehicles in 2021, thus offsetting less efficient vehicles in an OEM’s product line. FCVs also are important for meeting California’s zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) requirements scheduled for MY2018.
Fuel cell patent leaders
GM and Honda rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the total number of fuel-cell-related patents filed between 2002 and 2012, according to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index. GM is the automotive pioneer in fuel cell development, having built its first FCV, the Electrovan cargo van, in 1966, when fuel cells were powering the Apollo program’s spacecraft. In recent years GM has significantly refined its fuel cell stack and related technologies, and it has fielded a fleet of more than 100 fuel-cell-powered Chevrolet Equinoxes for real-world testing by consumers.
Honda built its first FCV in 1999, followed with the FCX concept, and in 2008 began limited production of the stylish FCX Clarity sedan, about 100 examples of which are on lease by consumers in the U.S., Japan, and Europe.
“We have complementary technologies, and by pooling them we can move development along faster,” said Girsky during the New York announcement. He described the Honda relationship as “a complete sharing of all our respective intellectual properties on the subject.” He even surprised media by offering Honda technical assistance on its next fuel cell car, a 2015 replacement for the Clarity that will be unveiled at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show.
“With GM and Honda sharing our technical expertise, we believe we can achieve the world’s strongest partnership in the area of fuel cell technology,” said Iwamura. The two companies approached each other about the partnership after years of informal technical meetings, the executives said. The Honda executive praised GM's chemistry expertise in the cell stack area, while the GM executive praised Honda's innovative manufacturing processes developed for fuel cell systems production.
A 'one team approach'
Most of the fuel cell’s technical hurdles, including poor transient and cold-weather performance, and low power density, have been solved during the past decade, GM’s Director of Global Fuel Cell Development, Charlie Freese, told AEI in a 2010 interview. He described the new alliance as “based on lots of mutual respect and a very strong cultural alignment” among the companies’ engineers.
Freese noted they’re focused on making it a “one-team approach,” with both companies having full access to the technology resources of each.
The next big challenge is making the vehicles affordable and the fuel widely available. There is also the issue of reducing precious-metal content within the stack. High development and materials costs—GM has spent more than $1 billion on its fuel cell program, according to company engineers—are forcing automakers into technology partnerships, where they can leverage their supply chains and manufacturing scale to help lower fuel cell systems cost. Ford, Renault-Nissan, and Daimler formed a joint development alliance last January that is aimed at making “affordable mass-market” fuel cell vehicles by 2017. BMW and Toyota have a similar arrangement.
Volkswagen and Hyundai also are developing fuel cell technology independently. And to further expand the hydrogen refueling infrastructure, H2USA, a public-private partnership consisting of 19 stakeholders (including GM and Honda, who joined last May) are working with the U.S. Department of Energy to expand the U.S. hydrogen refueling network (currently less than 25 stations centered in California) into a nationwide infrastructure.
At the New York announcement, Girsky and Iwamura indicated the fuel cell technology agreement potentially could expand into other joint development projects.