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At the Detroit auto show Toyota unveiled the FCV concept, which will be powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Toyota

Automotive executives keep touting the promise of hydrogen fuel cell cars. So where are they?

Certainly not at this year's Toronto auto show. Fuel cell announcements were rare at the Detroit auto show, too – though Toyota touted its FCV (Fuel Cell Vehicle) concept.

As has been the case since the late 1990s and early 2000s – back when Burnaby, B.C.'s Ballard Power Systems was the darling of "green" car enthusiasts and certain stock promoters – hydrogen fuel cells remain the unrealized dream of those in search of a no-emissions alternative to internal combustion engines (ICE). For at least a decade and a half, the automotive industry has been telling us the race is on, that viable fuel cells will soon be with us at a cost comparable to today's ICE.

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And the promising continues. The just-released 15th annual Global Automotive Executive Survey found that fuel cell vehicles are again experiencing a rise in popularity. KPMG International's annual survey found that 69 per cent of auto industry executives said they consider fuel cell technology critical to future growth.

As recently as late January, at Detroit's Automotive News World Congress, Toyota Motor reiterated a commitment to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Bob Carter, senior vice-president of automotive operations for Toyota U.S., said Toyota plans to sell a fuel cell car next year – despite the lack of hydrogen-refuelling infrastructure and concerns about excessive cost.

"I realize that there is no shortage of naysayers regarding the viability of this technology and the infrastructure to support it," Carter said, as reported in Automotive News. "If others want to tune out this technology, that's fine."

Fuel cell skeptics are justified in arguing that the technology won't be market-ready next year – not at a cost that has any chance of unseating the ICE. History is on their side.

Almost exactly 14 years ago, shares of Ballard Power Systems – then the perceived leader in automotive fuel cells – were on a tear. In February 2000, Ballard shares were trading in the $170-plus range, up from $44 in just weeks. Ballard expected to be producing automotive fuel cells as early as 2004. Cost? Comparable to a gasoline engine.

By late 2002, Ballard's shares had plunged into the $40 to $50 range and, by the fall of 2004, Ballard's shares were near worthless. (Ballard shares have rebounded in the past month and trade for about $5.) Shareholders such as Ford Motor and Daimler pulled out to pursue their own fuel cell efforts and shift attention to EVs powered by batteries.

In fairness, Daimler today has an aggressive fuel cell division and it's promising a fuel cell power plant by 2017, at a price comparable to a diesel-electric hybrid. For now, a fuel cell with the comparable size and power of a gasoline engine is as much as 10 times more expensive to produce, though Daimler says costs are coming down.

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Fuel cells make electricity by splitting electrons and protons in hydrogen and recombining them with oxygen. The electrons are captured and used to power an electric drive train, with the only emissions being a bit of water.

If that sounds simple, in theory it is. But that should not diminish the hurdles to mainstream use of the technology. Two of the biggest are the need for an infrastructure to get the hydrogen into a fuel cell and on-board storage of hydrogen.

At the World Congress, Carter predicted hydrogen eventually will be cheaper for drivers than gasoline. He also noted that cynics and skeptics called the Toyota Prius a gimmick, but Toyota has sold six million hybrids worldwide.

"I realize that there is no shortage of naysayers regarding the viability of this technology and the infrastructure to support it," he said. Toyota says its production fuel cell car will be range-capable of 500 kilometres, and refuelling with hydrogen will be possible within three minutes.

Count Nissan chief executive officer Carlos Ghosn among the non-believers.

"The challenge is mass marketing," he said in a 2013 interview at Tokyo's Motor Show. "One hundred cars, 1,000 [hydrogen] cars is very easy to do. The question is, are you going to mass market [the hydrogen car]? Where is the infrastructure?"

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Toyota, along with Honda and Hyundai, remain undeterred. Both Honda and Toyota have been clear on their plans to put fuel cell cars into the hands of consumers. Hyundai this past year showed a hydrogen-powered version of the Tucson compact crossover. Hyundai said the plan is to deliver the car next spring to American customers in limited numbers on a $499-a-month (U.S.) lease. Honda says its fuel cell car is due in 2015.

It may be that fuel cells will one day be the next step in the race to transform ICE-powered vehicles to EVs. After all, a fuel cell isn't an engine, it's an energy supply technology. Vehicles that use fuel cells are, in the end, EVs.

And the only way to get to zero is with EVs. Nissan, BMW, Ford and upstart Tesla Motors are the leaders in battery cars, with fuel cells largely in the background. Even General Motors, once among the fuel cell leaders, is focusing on plug-in hybrids, despite investing billions in fuel cell development.

GM product development chief Mark Reuss says the hydrogen refuelling issue resonates with consumers. Many believe refuelling with hydrogen is either onerous or dangerous or both.

The issues for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles then are: infrastructure, on-board storage, cost, quality, reliability and consumer acceptance.

So if not fuel cells, where is the industry headed? A KPMG survey of car executives points to plug-in vehicles as the dominant e-technology. A large number of those also believe there is much yet to be done in terms of optimizing the ICE.

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So the promise of fuel cells remains just that, a promise, just as it was back in the heyday of Ballard Power a decade and a half ago.

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