Honda, Nissan, and Toyota have announced plans to pool their resources and develop Japan's hydrogen infrastructure, which will serve the automakers' coming fleets of fuel-cell vehicles. Will the three succeed? And, if so, will they be able to translate their success to other countries like the U.S.?
Honda and Toyota made headlines last year when they both announced plans to focus less energy on battery-electric cars and instead turn their attention to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles. In May, Toyota went so far as to end its partnership with electric car company Tesla before unveiling the hydrogen-powered Mirai sedan in November.
But of course, creating demand for fuel-cell cars isn't just a matter of creating the cars themselves. Automakers have to make owning those cars convenient for motorists, too. (They also have to make the cars affordable, but that's a topic for another day.)
Fortunately, the Japanese government is hot for fuel-cells at the moment. Last summer, it unveiled something called the "Strategic Road Map for Hydrogen and Fuel Cells", which includes plans to create a hydrogen infrastructure to power fuel-cell vehicles.
Now, Japan's automakers are upping their investment in the government's plan. In a press release issued today, Honda, Nissan, and Toyota announced that they "have agreed to work together to help accelerate the development of hydrogen station infrastructure for fuel cell vehicles".
What, exactly does that mean? We're not sure, and unfortunately, neither are they. According to the release, "Specific measures to be undertaken by the three manufacturers will be determined at a later date".
What we do know is that the Japanese government is planning to subsidize the cost of building and maintaining hydrogen fuel stations. The press release suggests that the automakers will consider "underwriting a portion of the expenses involved in the operation of hydrogen stations".
From where we sit, there's little question that Japan's infrastructure plan could succeed. Given the government's initiatives to encourage the adoption of fuel-cell vehicles, and given the relatively small size of the country, it seems feasible that hydrogen fans in Japan could see fueling stations become just as common as gas stations.
The real questions are:
1. How much will Japan's hydrogen network cost the government, automakers, and taxpayers?
2. Will other countries -- not to mention other automakers -- want to invest similar resources to develop hydrogen networks of their elsewhere?
3. If the answer to #2 is "no", what happens to hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles? Will Honda, Nissan, and Toyota give up on them, or will they linger on as an island curiosity, like the Galapagos tortoise or the lemurs of Madagascar?
Feel free to answer one or all of those questions in the comments below.