For Toyota, Fuel Cells Take Precedence over Plugs

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Costly, unproven, and largely unsupported, hydrogen fuel cell technology in an automotive context has garnered its fair share of critics over the years, largely from proponents of plug-in cars. However, that hasn’t stopped companies from trying, and with breakthroughs in the technology speculatively around the corner, the critical murmurs are growing louder.

Perhaps the loudest of these critics is Tesla Motors’ (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk, who asserted that fuel cells are “so bullshit” and went on to say that they’re being developed primarily for marketing value. However, Toyota (NYSE:TM) — which, alongside Honda (NYSE:HMC), is the other force behind fuel cell development — is fighting back, alleging that fuel cells have a future beyond the charts in the PR boardroom.

Ambitiously, Toyota is hoping to have a fuel-cell powered vehicle on the roads by 2015. The company has noticeably steered clear of plug-in battery-powered EVs, and instead has been funneling its investments into the quick-filling, long-range fuel cells that Toyota says will meet more needs without compromises.

Toyota’s “pursuit of the ultimate eco-car” is actually being built on work that it started in 1992, and in 2002, the company released a limited number of fuel cell powered vehicles. By 2008, the FCHV powertrain had been engineered to fit inside of the Highlander SUV, one of Toyota’s more popular models.

“Nearly every time we post something about fuel cells, a plug-in advocate will respond saying it takes more energy to produce hydrogen than hydrogen delivers, so for this reason alone, it is a failure from its inception,” Hybridcars.com writes. In response, Matt McClory, the Toyota Technical Center Principle Engineer, said that the same argument could be applied to gasoline and other energy sources that are generated or refined.

“This is always a kind of mythical issue and I really don’t know where it comes from,” he said. “We could never have started — not only Toyota, but all the major automakers — we would not have started doing fuel cells back in the 90s if we thought it would not make sense to come to market as an economical and sustainable solution,” McClory says.

McClory continues to note that the first law of thermodynamics implies that, “It’s always going to take more energy that you start with as a source than what you can actually put in the tank of a vehicle.” Therefore, it really doesn’t matter what it is you’re putting in, it will take more energy to produce it than the car can yield from it. He added that despite loss of 90 percent of power used in coal-to-steam generation, it did not stop that technology from being embraced for the value it provided, Hybridcars.com reports.

Toyota notes that it acknowledges the inherent efficiencies of battery powered electric motors which, by its estimates, tend to be around 81 to 85 percent efficient, though 90 percent isn’t out of the question. McClory — and manager for Toyota’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Craig Scott – say that for plug-in cars, the transmission of energy through power lines (however many miles), transformers, and so on is where the energy is lot — resulting in a 36 percent efficiency rating compared to hydrogen’s 67 percent.

“Plug-in vehicle advocates point out infrastructure for their technology of choice already exists — i.e., electric wall outlets and transmission lines everywhere — but fuel cells will need a crazy amount of money to solve the proverbial ‘chicken-and-egg’ dilemma,” Hybridcars.com reports, adding that Toyota mentions that this shift is already well underway. California (who else?) has taken some aggressive steps in pushing for greater hydrogen infrastructure, as other initiatives across the country are underway. However, according to Plug In America’s Chief Science Officer Tom Saxon, plug-in cars and hydrogen cars, which are both forms of zero-emissions vehicles, “often get put in the same bucket and thus compete for funding.”

While the hydrogen infrastructure has yet to be built — which will certainly become a massive and costly endeavor — it is facing the same problem that plug-in cars are experiencing as well. Outside of the proprietary network that is being built by Tesla itself, there is no national infrastructure to support electric vehicles, like the gas station network in place today.

While those like Elon Musk have a particular bias to uphold, we think that there may just be enough room in the automotive market — especially now, given that EVs — fuel cell or plug-in — make up such a small drop in such a large ocean. Scientific advancement in any field doesn’t come from the homogeny of an industry, and in a society employing free-market ideals, the survival of the fittest will be the greatest test for either technology.

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