Less than a decade ago, global automakers touted hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as the best way to reduce oil dependency and clean up the environment. But talk of fuel cells seemed to subside in recent years as other technologies like hybrids, battery-electric vehicles and even ethanol-powered cars grabbed the attention of consumers and government leaders handing out subsidies.
The two biggest hindrances to fuel cells were the costs associated with storing hydrogen on board the vehicle and the lack of hydrogen refueling stations. Plug-in cars, by comparison, are cheaper (although still too expensive for the mass market) and the charging infrastructure is building.
General Motors GM 0% and Honda Motor HMC +1.81%say they never stopped working on fuel cell development, however, and now the two carmakers, with 1,200 patents between them, are teaming up to tackle these challenges and try to speed the adoption of fuel cell vehicles by 2020.
“This collaboration builds upon Honda and GM’s strengths as leaders in hydrogen fuel cell technology,” said Dan Akerson, GM chairman and CEO. “We are convinced this is the best way to develop this important technology, which has the potential to help reduce the dependence on petroleum and establish sustainable mobility.”
Takanobu Ito, president and chief executive of Honda Motor said: “Among all zero CO2 emission technologies, fuel cell electric vehicles have a definitive advantage with range and refueling time that is as good as conventional gasoline cars. Honda and GM are eager to accelerate the market penetration of this ultimate clean mobility technology, and I am excited to form this collaboration to fuse our leading fuel cell technologies and create an advanced system that will be both more capable and more affordable.”
By collaborating on development, GM and Honda, already the leaders in fuel cell research, believe they can reduce costs more quickly by sharing expertise, economies of scale and suppliers. “We’re talking about a complete sharing of all our respective intellectual properties on the subject,” said Girsky.
A fuel cell vehicle creates electricity from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen in the car’s fuel-cell stack. The only tailpipe emission is water vapor. But development costs are high because of the extensive use of platinum as a catalyst and the complexity of onboard storage of hydrogen, which requires expensive, carbon fiber storage tanks.
“Two companies can do more together than the simple sum of our individual efforts,” said Iwamura. “GM’s knowledge of chemical reaction and advanced material is class leading,” he said. “At Honda, we’re confident in our expertise in the structural design and advanced production process technologies of the fuel cell. With GM and Honda sharing our technical expertise… we believe we can achieve the world’s strongest partnership in the area of fuel cell technology.”
The two companies will also work together with governments and other stakeholders to try to jump-start a new hydrogen refueling infrastructure, which he said is critical for the long-term viability and consumer acceptance of fuel cell vehicles.
The deal is the latest in a string of alliances created to share the cost of developing fuel cell vehicles. Toyota Motor and BMW are working together, as are Daimler AG, Ford Motor and Nissan Motor.
GM and Honda are considered pioneers, ranking first and second in the number of fuel cell patents. Both have been testing fuel cell vehicles on the roads for years. GM’s Project Driveway program, launched in 2007, has accumulated nearly 3 million miles of real-world driving in a fleet of 119 hydrogen-powered vehicles, more than any other automaker.
Honda began leasing of the Honda FCX in 2002 and has deployed 85 units in the U.S. and Japan, including its successor, the FCX Clarity, which was named the 2009 World Green Car. Honda has delivered these vehicles to the hands of customers in the U.S. and collected valuable data concerning real-world use of fuel cell electric vehicles.
As already announced, Honda plans to launch the successor of FCX Clarity in Japan and the United States in 2015, and then in Europe. GM will announce its fuel cell production plans at a later date.