Despite suggestions by Toyota and the International New York Times, cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells are not on the cusp of a "Prius moment," says Carlos Ghosn, CEO of the Nissan-Renault Alliance.
"The challenge is mass marketing," he said, following Toyota's unveiling of a hydrogen fuel cell car that the world's biggest auto maker says will go on sale "around 2015."
Toyota says the FCV, with a range of 500 km and capable of being refuelled with hydrogen in three minutes, is a better alternative to battery cars like Nissan's Leaf. The FCV has more range than any battery car and can be recharged in a fraction of the time.
The Leaf, of course, is Nissan's signature achievement in "green" personal transportation. Ghosn, defending Nissan's approach to electrification, was skeptical about hydrogen fuel cell cars that use a chemical process to create electricity from on-board hydrogen to power a zero-emissions vehicle.
"I did not hear one car manufacturer say they are engaged in mass marketing fuel cell cars," said Ghosn, who also noted that 130,000 Leafs are in customer hands right now. He said that the infrastructure to provide for hydrogen fill-ups – hydrogen filling stations – does not exist. He also said a hydrogen filling station costs 10 times or perhaps even 100 times as much as a quick-charge station that will put an 80 per cent charge into a drained Leaf battery pack.
"One hundred cars, 1,000 (hydrogen) cars is very easy to do," he said. "The question is, are you going to mass market it (the hydrogen car)? Where is the infrastructure?" For electric vehicles, it already exists, he said. It's just a matter of adapting it (to electric vehicle use). Ghosn then added that he does not believe hydrogen fuel cells cars have any hope of mass-market acceptance before 2020.
So, is there a future for electric cars? Definitely.
"We are moving towards the electrification of the car industry," he said. But he also admitted that Nissan will fall far short of its stated goal of selling 1.5 million EVs by 2016. But Nissan will reach that target eventually and other car companies will need to come up with an electric solution in order to meet strict government emissions targets in markets from Tokyo to Beijing to Paris.
Ghosh said that Nissan's experience with the slow consumer adoption of EVs has taught the company to take a sober view of new and dramatic technologies such as the Leaf. Consumer acceptance of the Leaf has been slower than anticipated, he conceded. What's needed now is for governments not so much to support the purchase of EVs with direct consumer subsidies, but for governments to support the expansion of vehicle recharging infrastructure in major centres around the world.
"If there is support we need, it's (recharging) infrastructure," he said. EVs will sell when buyers can readily and easily charge drained batteries. He argued that governments should look at support for EV charging stations as an investment, not a cost – and not an exorbitant one, either.
He admitted frustration at getting agreement among governments regarding the development of a widespread charging infrastructure for the Leaf and its ilk. Progress has been slow, but he's not discouraged – and he's more optimistic on that front than about hydrogen fuel cells.
That is, if it's been something of a slog to move EV charging stations into the mainstream, "Imagine how long it's going to take to develop a hydrogen infrastructure," he said, in a none-too-subtle jab at Toyota's hydrogen hype in Tokyo.
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Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referenced Toyota's FCV. This version has been corrected.