GM, Honda Detail Long-Term Fuel Cell Co-Development Strategy

Earlier this month, GM and Honda announced they are embarking on a long-term agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel cell technologies and infrastructure, with the goal of driving the technology forward faster. The target date the automakers are shooting for is 2020.

“We’re working together to innovate and drive costs down,” says Charles Freese, GM’s executive director of global fuel cell activities, adding that this is the first time two major automakers have undertaken a co-development project of this magnitude. “If we have a common system to produce, it helps develop the supply chain,” he says.

Fuel cells typically work by converting hydrogen (the fuel) and oxygen into water; the process produces electricity that can power vehicles while emitting only water vapor. With a range and refueling time that is comparable to gas-powered vehicles, fuel cell technology is considered by some to be the most promising of all the zero-carbon emission technologies. But after years of development, the technology still hasn’t taken off in cars.

“Fuel cells offer so many opportunities,” Freese explains. “You can solve the problem of emissions and can get energy from virtually any source, including renewables. The challenge is taking the technology through a few learning cycles, bringing the cost down, and maturing the infrastructure.”

While the idea of two rival automakers joining forces to develop technology is unprecedented, in this case, it seems to make sense. According to the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index, GM and Honda rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in total fuel cell patents filed between 2002 and 2012, with more than 1,200 between them. There’s a lot at stake for both GM and Honda financially if fuel cell technology fails to take off.

According to Freese, it’s a chicken and egg problem: Consumers are reluctant to buy cars for which refueling stations are scarce; suppliers are hesitant to build a refueling infrastructure for cars that consumers aren’t buying.

Freese says GM’s collaboration with Honda is a strategy to cross “the valley of death” as both companies attempt to bring expensive fuel cell technology to market while competing with the combustion engine, which is relatively low-cost and (of course) has a widespread refueling infrastructure in place.

“When the combustion engine first started out, drivers had to buy gas at the pharmacy,” Freese points out. “It’s been through 50 or 60 development cycles since then and now is the industry standard. With fuel cell vehicles, it’s actually quite amazing the progress we’ve made in 10 years. They’re still too expensive, but the technical challenges have been met.”

In the United States, there are a few places Freese says a workable fuel cell infrastructure wouldn’t be hard to build. Efforts would likely start in the Los Angeles area, where consumers are already interested in owning fuel cell vehicles. Freese says “65 or so” fueling stations would cover most of California.

Hawaii is another state ripe for fuel cell infrastructure. “They have really high fuel prices, they’re completely bounded by water, and they have a high percentage of renewables,” Freese adds. “Those are all the elements we need to make it happen.”

Internationally, Freese believes, fuel cell infrastructure creation will start in Japan, Germany, and Scandinavia, in part because there is existing government support in those countries. In the U.S., a hydrogen infrastructure project called H2USA started in May and now has 19 members, among them the U.S. Department of Energy, a handful of auto manufacturers including GM and Honda, and assorted suppliers, energy coalitions, and trade groups. Ultimately, Freese says the U.S. government can incentivize fuel cell vehicle ownership, but the infrastructure will have to be built by the private sector.

For its part, GM launched Project Driveway, a large-scale market test of fuel cell vehicles, in 2007 and has since then racked up nearly 3 million miles of real-world driving in a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered vehicles—more than any other car manufacturer.

Meanwhile, Honda began leasing the FCX in 2002 and has since delivered 85 of the vehicles to the U.S. and Japan. In 2015, it plans to release a successor, the FCX Clarity, in Europe, the U.S., and Japan.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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