It’s the first day of the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, NV., which means the eyes of the world are focused on everything new and shiny in the technology world. Covering everything from smartphone and computer technology through to intelligent homes, household appliances and yes, even cars, CES is quickly becoming the place to be for automakers wanting to make a big impact with their latest clean, green technology.
So it’s no surprise that Japanese automaker Toyota has chosen CES 2014 as a place to promote its commitment to hydrogen fuel cell technology by opening the show with two hydrogen fuel-celled vehicles: a FCV concept four-door sedan, and a fully-camolagued prototype car it says has been undergoing extensive testing for more than a year.
But while Toyota is eagerly promising it will launch its first mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell car for customers to buy by the end of next year, we’re left scratching our heads as to where exactly Toyota things its cars will refuel?
Toyota says it’s been thinking of just that question, and has been working hard with the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program (APEP) to figure out the best places in California for the location of refuelling stations for hydrogen cars. It’s assumption is that owners want to reach a refuelling station within 6 minutes.
The result, Toyota says, is a list of just 68 locations in the San Francisco bay area and Silicon Valley ,as well as Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. Those 68 stations, it says, could handle the refuelling duties of around 10,000 vehicles.
Toyota’s current prototype hydrogen fuel cell car has undergone some pretty extensive testing in the past twelve months, we’re told, with both cold weather and extreme heat testing proving it has what it takes to drive on any road in North America. It can fill up in between three and five minutes for an estimated range of 300 miles per tank.
On paper, that 300 miles of range will certainly be enough to get customers from one refuelling station to the next, especially in densely populated areas where the density of FCV vehicles will by definition also be greater. But while Toyota’s claims of being able to sustain a 10,000 car fleet from just 68 refuelling stations might seem achievable, we’re doubtful in real life because hydrogen just won’t be ubiquitous.
Less places to fill up
Consider this: in 2011, there were an estimated 9,700 filling stations in the state of California, just under 24 million licensed drivers registered with the California DMV, and an estimated 22 million registered cars on the roads of the state. Theoretically, that’s one ‘traditional’ filling station for every 2,270 or so cars, making Toyota’s goal of 68 filling stations for 10,000 cars (147 hydrogen fuel cell cars for every station) seem eminently achievable.
Yet we’re guessing that for most Californians, the choice of where to fill up isn’t about finding which fuel station is within a six-minuite drive but which fuel station is en-route to work, or school. And because not every gas station will also sells hydrogen, early adopters are bound to get some range anxiety when taking their H2 car to an unkonwn area.
Slow, costly building program for refuelling
Like several plug-in automakers, including Tesla and Nissan, Toyota says it’s happy to invest in the refuelling infrastructure needed to refill its first production hydrogen car.
But unlike plug-in charging stations, which are relatively easy to install and cheap when compared to say, a gasoline filling station, California has earmarked $200 million to install a total of 20 new filling stations by the time Toyota’s first FCT hits the roads in 2015, 40 refuelling stations by 2016, and ‘as many as’ 100 refuelling stations by 2024.
Even if we ignore the almost glacial speed at which filling stations for hydrogen are expected to be built, the cost is astronomical: more than $1.25 million per filling station, about the same as building a very small traditional gas station from scratch.
Yet Tesla’s ultra-powerful Supercharger locations are estimated to cost the Californian automaker somewhere between $125,000 and $300,000 per location, depending on the presence of solar panels or not. Tesla’s battery swap stations — none of which have been built yet — are likely to cost around $500,000 each. In short, the cost of building hydrogen infrastructure is an order of magnitude larger than installing even the most powerful electric car charging stations we currently have. And that’s before you examine the requirements for producing, storing and transporting hydrogen to each fuelling station.
No home refuelling
Then there’s the matter of fuelling at home. Or not. While gasoline car aren’t fuelled at home, one of the benefits battery electric vehicles have over hydrogen electric cars is the fact that it’s possible to refuel them at home using existing infrastructure. You can plug one in without any pre-existing infrastructure if you really need to: just a wall outlet required. This benefit, combined with the fact that
Of course, it could be argued that electric and compressed natural gas car owners also have a challenge when out and about finding somewhere to recharge. But unlike hydrogen fuel cell cars, owners of plug-in cars can charge at home from their domestic power supply. With appropriate CNG refuelling apparatus, CNG car owners can also refuel at home, producing CNG from the domestic gas supply entering the home.
A long way to go
Here at Transport Evolved we’re fans of any new car technology that can help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, reduce our carbon emissions and make for a more equitable, sustainable future. If we ignore some of the environmental issues that surround the current favoured method of generating hydrogen gas for FCVs, — burning natural gas — and look at some of the more environmentally-friendly methods proposed — like using a hydrogen gas solar reactor — hydrogen does have the potential to be a very green fuel.
And yes, in some cases, FCV electric vehicles could make a more practical solution to battery electric vehicles. For example, in extremely remote areas, using a hydrogen fuel cell to give an EV range-extending capabilities would be more practical than installing charging stations in remote locations, provided the vehicle could carry enough compressed hydrogen on board to give it sufficient range.
But in the most part, given the challenges that the plug-in industry has faced in terms of infrastructure woes over the past decade, we’re struggling to see how Toyota will ready us for hydrogen fuel cell cars in just one short year — with or without help from local and Federal governments.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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