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

7/30/13Follow @XconomyDET

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 is the editor of Xconomy Detroit. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET

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  • http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com/ John Bailo

    How come everyone else is shipping FCVs in 2015 and these guys are waiting until 2020?

    • Keith Malone

      Thus far, only Honda and Toyota have indicated that they will begin selling fuel cell electric vehicles in 2015. Other automakers have indicated later dates. For example, in their announcement of a joint venture, Ford, Nissan and Daimler announced they would begin selling in 2017.

  • Keith Malone

    The California legislature is considering bill s (SB 11, AB 8) that will commit the Golden State to 100 hydrogen fueling stations. Both have bipartisan support and have passed their house of origin. A report by the California Fuel Cell Partnership (disclosure: I am employed by CaFCP) found that 68 stations will be enough to launch the commercial and 100 stations will help sustain it. After 100, the belief by stakeholders is that private investors will fully fund all future hydrogen fueling stations.

  • Mike Morris

    Found some very interesting fuel cell links and video …. Impressive in my opinion…

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    Microsoft Backs Away From Grid

    http://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2012/11/20/microsoft-backs-away-slowly-from-the-grid/

    Germans are in favour of fuel cell cars

    http://www.platinum.matthey.com/news-and-events/news-articles/2013/march/21st/germans-are-in-favour-of-fuel-cell-cars

  • Mike Morris

    Hyundai has been teasing the ix35 at various business and political events throughout Europe this year, and started developing hydrogen fuel cell technology back in 1998. The new ix35s are an important step, since they represent the early wave of the 1,000 ix35 Fuel Cells that Hyundai wants to build by 2015.

    http://green.autoblog.com/2013/06/07/hyundai-delivers-first-hydrogen-fuel-cell-ix35-in-copenhagen/

  • http://www.you-read-it-here-first.com/ John Bailo

    GM is putting me to sleep! Everyone else is shipping FCVs in 2015. KIA is already building production model hydrogen cars for Europe. Honda already has developed and leased FCV cars in Los Angeles since 2007. Release the parking brake America and let’s go Hydrogen!