They might be hailed as a way for Japan to work towards a transportation future without gasoline, but hydrogen fuel cell cars are doomed to failure elsewhere in the world.
That’s according to Volkswagen Group Japan President Shigeru Shoji, who told Bloomberg last week that the cost and complexity of hydrogen fuel cell cars would doom them to only becoming popular in Japan, something known as the Galapagos Syndrome.
Early next spring, Toyota will launch its 2015 Mirai Hydrogen Fuel Cell Sedan in its home market of Japan. Capable of travelling just over 400 miles per fill of its twin hydrogen fuel cell tanks, the Toyota Mirai is being marketed as a more practical, longer-range, faster-refuelling alternative to battery electric cars, but with an expected sticker price of ¥7 million, it won’t be cheap.
To encourage and facilitate adoption rates, the Japanese government will offer each and every hydrogen fuel cell customer ¥2 million in purchase incentives. The prefecture of Aichi, where Toyota has its headquarters, plans to add another ¥1 million in incentives to reduce the effective Toyota Mirai purchase price to just two thirds of its original MSRP.
Japan’s government is even considering completely underwriting a small number of early-adopters’ cars, simply to get hydrogen fuel cell cars on the road. Combine this with taxpayer-funded infrastructure projects designed to build suitable numbers of hydrogen refuelling stations throughout the country, and Japan’s total investment in hydrogen fuel cell technology is unarguably the largest of any nation.
It’s all part of a much larger plan led by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the current administration to build a Japan where homes, offices and transportation are all powered by Hydrogen.
Asking other countries — who don’t have the same plans for hydrogen as a general future fuel — to follow suit with up to $28,500 in incentives per vehicle, simply isn’t economically viable.
“It may fly within Japan, but not globally,” Shoji said.
Shoji’s colleague, Volkswagen Japan spokesperson, is less reserved. “It’s an Abe and Toyota deal,” he said, making it clear that he was speaking personally rather than on behalf of VW. “It’s an industry giant and the most powerful LDP party, and they are working very close. It’s sort of difficult to complain about it.”
Unlike Toyota, Volkswagen has opted to focus its future technology portfolio on building a range of electrified vehicles. By the end of this year, Volkswagen aims to offer at least 14 different electrified vehicles and says it will dominate the electrified vehicle market — which includes hybrid electric, plug-in hybrid and battery electric — by 2020.
In a market where plug-in vehicle sales are increasing, hybrid sales are diminishing and Toyota is turning its attention to hydrogen fuel cell cars, Volkswagen’s goal might not be as far-fetched as it seems, especially if world governments are unwilling to follow Japan’s lead.
That said, Shoji admits that Volkswagen is keeping a close eye on hydrogen fuel cell technology, just in case it does surprise analysts and take off.
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