‘Coming Out Party’ for Hydrogen Vehicles at Tokyo and L.A. Auto Shows

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‘Coming Out Party’ for Hydrogen Vehicles at Tokyo and L.A. Auto Shows

Plug-in electric vehicles haven’t quite yet taken off in the U.S., capturing less than 1 percent of new car sales in the country. But automakers already have their eyes set on the next big thing: hydrogen.

At auto shows in Los Angeles and Tokyo, three Asian car manufacturers — Honda, Hyundai and Toyota — are set to introduce hydrogen-powered cars, which Hyundai Motor America chief John Krafcik called “a coming out party for hydrogen.”

Hydrogen fuel cell cars take gas, which can be loaded in a manner similar to liquid gasoline without the lengthy charging sessions required by electric plug-ins, and convert it to electricity, which they then use to power the car as quietly as an electric vehicle.

The announcements, though, have sparked some intra-green acrimony, with Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk leading the charge. (“And then they’ll say certain technologies like fuel cell … oh god … fuel cell is so bullshit. Except in a rocket,” he was quoted as saying last month.) The Los Angeles Times reports:

Even before these fuel cell cars hit dealer lots, they are causing a schism in the green car community, as advocates of electric and hydrogen vehicles compete for limited government funds for fueling stations and incentives needed to jump-start sales, Koslowski said.

Elon Musk, a technology tycoon and Tesla Motors’ chief executive, disparaged fuel cell cars, calling them a marketing ploy by the mainstream auto companies.

“Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas,” said Musk, who also runs SpaceX, the rocket company formally known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. “It’s suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars.”

Not true, says Matt McClory, one of the principal engineers of the Toyota fuel cell vehicle. And he has a bullet to prove it. In safety tests, Toyota’s engineers shot rifle bullets at its high-pressure hydrogen tanks to see if they would explode or catch fire. […]

Still, this “Hindenburg” perception — referring to the 1937 disaster that consumed a German airship in a hydrogen fireball — is something automakers will have to tackle, said Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product and corporate planning.

The hydrogen-powered vehicles to be unveiled will fuel up in a relatively speedy 3-5 minutes. They have a range of 300 miles or more, offering more flexibility than battery-driven electric cars, which range from 75 miles (for conventional models) to 200 or more (for Tesla’s high-end Model S). Hyundai’s model will be “a hydrogen version of its Tucson sport utility vehicle,” while Toyota’s will be a smaller four-seat model.

Hydrogen charging stations — generally pumps adjacent to conventional gasoline filling stations — are relatively rare at the moment. California barely has any outside of its two major metropolitan areas, though the California Fuel Cell Partnership, which seeks to promote the use of hydrogen vehicles, hopes to have 68 in the state by the start of 2016.

In Germany, where hydrogen vehicles have been key to achieving the massive greenhouse gas reductions — up to 95 percent lower than 1990 levels, according to its international commitments — Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler hopes to bump the number of charging stations from 15 to 100 by 2015, at a cost of around $1 million per new station.

The costs of the new hydrogen vehicles at this year’s auto shows have not yet been released.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

Stephen J. Smith is a reporter based in New York. He has written about transportation, infrastructure and real estate for a variety of publications including New York Yimby, where he is currently an editor, Next City, City Lab and the New York Observer.

Tags: infrastructurepublic transportationlos angelescarsthe workstokyo

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