As we’ve talked about plenty of times in the past, the biggest challenge facing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on their way to mass-market viability is the extremely limited numbers of hydrogen refilling stations currently in existence around the world. Without enough filling stations equipped to dispense hydrogen and without the benefit of being able to refuel anywhere as an electric vehicle can, infrastructure is the fly in the ointment of many automaker’s hydrogen mass-market plans.
Costly to build and maintain, hydrogen filling stations require state-of-the-art technology capable of safely storing large quantities of hydrogen — either as a liquid (slush hydrogen) or compressed hydrogen gas — as well as specially-designed high-pressure gas pumps that can safely fill a hydrogen vehicle’s tank with the hydrogen at the correct pressure but also accurately record the amount dispensed so that it can be correctly paid for. Depending on location, equipment installed and required pressure, the cost per hydrogen filling station can range from $500,000 to more than $5 million.
But in Japan, a trio of automakers — namely Toyota, Honda and Nissan — have just announced their intent to kick-start the development of a hydrogen fuel revolution by subsidizing the installation and operational costs of new hydrogen filling stations in Japan. The funds — limited to either one third of the total cost to build and operate the station or ¥11 million ($90,000), whichever is smaller — will be made available by the three automakers jointly until hydrogen fuel cell vehicles become an established part of the automotive marketplace, and recipients will have to re-apply for funding assistance on a rolling year-by-year basis.
The announcement, made yesterday, formalizes an agreement made between the three firms back in February, and shows how keen Japan is to bring hydrogen fuel cell technology to mass-market scale.
The effort also receives backing from the Japanese Government, which thus far has invested heavily in hydrogen fuel cell technology and plans to spend a further ¥42 billion ($385 million) on hydrogen fuel cell vehicle subsidies and infrastructure programs between now and the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
As many readers will note, Toyota and Honda’s involvement in this joint automotive effort to build more hydrogen filling stations makes complete sense. After all, Toyota already sells its limited-production, first-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicle — the 2016 Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell sedan — in its home market of Japan. Even though the Mirai has only just launched, Toyota is already talking about its next-generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, too. Due some time in 2020, Toyota promises the next-generation hydrogen fuel cell car will be more efficient and cheaper to build than the Mirai, bringing hydrogen hydrogen fuel cell technology to a much wider market segment.
Honda too, has plans to bring its own affordable hydrogen fuel cell vehicle to market. While we’ve yet to see what that first production fuel cell vehicle will look like, previous concepts displayed last year in Los Angeles show a four-seat sedan that is sleek, futuristic, and reminiscent of Honda’s first Insight hybrid. With a long history of working on hydrogen fuel cell technology, Honda’s participation also makes sense.
But Nissan, the third automaker in the partnership , is less easy to understand.
For the past decade or so, Nissan has chosen to focus on battery electric vehicles rather than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, becoming the world’s biggest electric automaker thanks to more than 185,000 electric vehicle sales since 2010.
Indeed late last year, Nissan Motor Company Vice Chairman Toshiyuki Shiga told the Japan Times that Nissan was in no hurry to transition to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, saying that Nissan would stay with battery electric vehicles for many years to come — at least while they remain popular.
One of the reasons Shiga gave for holding back on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles was the cost of installing the infrastructure. Having spent millions of dollars on helping accelerate electric vehicles by donating rapid DC CHAdeMO quick charging stations to charging providers and dealerships worldwide, the prospect of spending far more on hydrogen fuel cell technology seems unimaginable.
But as Nissan has demonstrated in the past, it is a pragmatic automaker, one that will not put all of its metaphorical eggs in one basket. Given the financial support being offered by the Japanese government for hydrogen fuel cell development, Nissan is just as likely to bring a hydrogen fuel cell car to market as Toyota and Honda. Just as diesel is favored in some markets while gasoline is favored in others, the amount of funding put into hydrogen vehicles by the Japanese government could easily give way to a future where hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the primary zero emissions choice in Japan while electric vehicles are more popular elsewhere.
For Nissan not to at least partially invest in the technology in its home market of Japan could be detrimental to the company’s future success.
You can also support us directly as a monthly supporting member by visiting Patreon.com.