Will Your Next Car Run On Hydrogen? Ford, Mercedes, Nissan Partner On Fuel Cell Tech

January 29, 2013

We live in interesting times. (Which is a good thing, by the way, and not a Chinese curse after all.) We are witnessing the long, slow death of automobiles that run on fossil fuels.

It may take decades for those vehicles to cycle out of favor, but there's little doubt that the next big thing is electric cars, and four of Planet Earth's biggest automakers have joined forces to speed up the transition.

Ford, Daimler (the parent company of Mercedes-Benz), and the Renault-Nissan Alliance have announced a partnership by which they will jointly develop hydrogen fuel cell systems. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is new and expensive; by partnering, these automakers hope to share the costs while devising a standard fuel cell system that can be implemented worldwide.

In fact, according to a press release, the companies are so optimistic that they expect to debut "the world's first affordable, mass-market [fuel cell electric vehicles] as early as 2017".

About fuel cell electric vehicles

Fuel cell vehicles are, in essence, electric vehicles, but they use alternate sources of fuel to keep the car's battery charged. You're probably familiar with the Chevrolet Volt, which relies on a gas-powered generator to charge the batteries. Fuel cell vehicles work similarly, but instead of gasoline, they use fuels like hydrogen. When paired with oxygen, that hydrogen produces energy for the batteries -- and it does so while leaving behind no CO2, just water vapor.

There are already a handful of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the roads, including the Honda FCX Clarity and the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL. However, those vehicles are in very limited production, and they're only available for lease in specific areas where there's already a hydrogen fuel infrastructure. (In the U.S., that means California.)

What Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan aim to create is a common, efficient fuel cell system that can be easily deployed across their product lines. Working together, they can leverage economies of scale to bring production costs down.

Having such big names attached to the collaboration also gives the project weight, which means that investors may be more likely to sink money into expanding the hydrogen infrastructure. That's crucial: without hydrogen filling stations, consumers aren't likely to get excited about fuel cell vehicles, no matter how efficient and clean they may be.

Our take

Fuel cell vehicles and other electric cars won't become dominant players in the world's auto markets for years to come. However, from where we sit, their rise in popularity is almost a foregone conclusion. That's due to a number of factors, including:

1. Increased concerns around climate change.

2. Popular awareness that use of fossil fuels contributes to climate change.

3. Improvements in battery and other technology that offer electric cars a range similar to (and eventually, better than) their gas-powered cousins.

4. New technology that makes use of abundant resources like hydrogen.

None of that is to say that electric vehicles -- those that run on fuel cells or anything else -- are much cleaner to manufacture than conventional cars and trucks. Nor is harvesting and distributing hydrogen a zero-emissions game. And beyond those two problems, there are significant hurdles to overcome before electric cars become viable, sensible options for consumers and manufacturers. But in time, we expect those issues to be resolved. 

Will you have a fuel cell vehicle in your driveway by 2017? That we're less sure of.

For more on this story, watch the video clip above, and be sure to check out our colleagues at MotorAuthority.com.

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