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Auto makers team up to mount a comeback for fuel cells

A Mercedes fuel cell vehicle. Daimler has a plan for hydrogen fuelling stations in Germany.

Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Fuel-cell-powered vehicles – all but ignored in recent years amid the arrival of battery-powered cars – are back on the front burner again.

Three auto makers said Monday that they are teaming up to launch affordable, hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles in the mass market by 2017, the second major collaboration on fuel cells announced in the space of a week.

The potential presence of fuel cell vehicles on highways around the world in just four years signals how far the technology has advanced in a decade and from the days when it was believed prohibitive costs would keep them out of the mass market until the 2020s.

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It also shows how auto makers continue to hedge their bets on new technologies to reduce emissions in the face of stringent new requirements. Fuel cells actually eliminate emissions, although there are challenges beyond the fuel cell itself.

"The [fuel cell] technology is getting a lot closer to being ready," said Brett Smith, co-director of the Center for Automotive Research's manufacturing, engineering and technology group.

Several auto makers have small numbers of fuel cell vehicles on roads in various stages of testing.

Daimler AG, Ford Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. said their three-way partnership plans to cut the costs of the technology through a common system that will take advantage of the economies of scale created by spreading costs over three of the world's largest auto makers.

"The collaboration sends a clear signal to suppliers, policy makers and the industry to encourage further development of hydrogen refuelling stations and other infrastructure necessary to allow the vehicles to be mass-marketed," the three companies said in a statement.

"Working together will significantly help speed this technology to market at a more affordable cost to our customers, said Raj Nair, Ford's vice-president of global product development.

Mr. Smith said the Daimler-Ford-Nissan deal, coming on the heels of a partnership announced last week by BMW AG and Toyota Motor Corp., shows that another round of what he calls "fuel cell hype" is beginning.

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Underneath the hype, however, are reductions in cost and improvements in the technology, he noted.

But auto makers need to work on the tanks vehicles will carry to store the hydrogen that gets converted into electric power and the hydrogen industry will have to develop the infrastructure for refuelling.

"To create a cost-effective storage tank is going to be a real challenge for the [auto] industry," Mr. Smith said. "Not to say it can't be done, I just haven't heard or seen them."

Auto makers have combined with hydrogen producers to build hydrogen filling stations in such test markets as California.

Daimler said it has signed a deal with fuel producer Linde AG to build 20 hydrogen fuelling stations in Germany.

With a file from Reuters

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About the Author
Auto and Steel Industry Reporter

Greg Keenan has covered the automotive and steel industries for The Globe and Mail since 1995. He also writes about broader manufacturing trends. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto and of the University of Western Ontario School of Journalism. More


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