Feature: Hydrogen Fuel Cells – Where Are They Now? green scene auto tech
Feature: Hydrogen Fuel Cells – Where Are They Now? green scene auto tech
Feature: Hydrogen Fuel Cells – Where Are They Now? green scene auto tech
Feature: Hydrogen Fuel Cells – Where Are They Now? green scene auto tech
Hydrogen Fuel Cells. Click image to enlarge

Article by Michael Bettencourt

Despite all the global buzz created by various fuel cell intros and confirmations at the Tokyo and LA auto shows recently, the latest feedback from Canadian automakers suggests such fuel cell cars will only make it to Canada much later than their announced global dates – if ever.

Toyota and Honda confirmed that they plan to introduce new hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicles to California and Japan by the end of 2015, while Hyundai trumped them both by promising a fuel cell version of its Tucson will be available in southern California in mere months, in the spring of 2014.

But ask the Canadian divisions of all three of these companies if these fuel cells will arrive in Canada around the same time, the answer is the same: no. Or more accurately, some variation of “we haven’t decided yet/no definitive plans/not at this point.” Which basically means no, as these companies responded in the exact same way about other zero (local) emissions vehicles like the Toyota RAV4 EV and Honda Fit EV in the past few years.

In California, there are nine hydrogen fueling station open to the public, out of 10 overall in the U.S., so it’s no surprise that all automakers are focusing their efforts in that state to start. But it’s not only this available infrastructure making California the hotspot for such emissions-free cars. Strict state Air Resource Board (CARB) rules require the largest automakers in that state to sell a certain percentage of zero emissions vehicles (battery or fuel cell electric vehicles) or near-zero emissions vehicles, such as the Chevrolet Volt, that can be driven largely without local emissions.

These rules will require GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Nissan and Honda to sell 60,000 plug-in hybrid or fuel cell vehicles by the end of 2014 in California, which has a population about the size of Canada’s, but a much higher and pricier mix of vehicles per capita. This zero or near-zero requirement will later apply to smaller sellers Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, BMW and Mazda by 2018.

In Canada, there are no such zero emissions vehicle requirements. Nor are there any fully public hydrogen charging stations open right now in Canada, though there are a handful of active research stations around the country: tough to have any station open for a vehicle type that’s never been sold here. The majority of these research hydrogen stations reside in greater Vancouver, the birthplace of the modern automotive fuel cell, thanks to the sizable Canadian research arm of Ballard’s pioneering automotive research.

Canadian history books may in fact one day see the sale of Ballard’s automotive fuel cell business as a four-wheel version of the dismantling of the technologically advanced and Canadian-designed Avro Arrow. The Canadian delta wing fighter jet never got past the prototype stage in the late 1950s. Daimler AG and Ford Motor Company formed a to a new fuel cell joint venture from the remains of Ballard in 2008, but it remains to be seen if they can make it viable. If fuel cell production and sales take off, it might be seen as a key globally collaborative step to bring fuel cell electric vehicles out of the lab and into actual consumer use.

Much depends on where fuel cells go from here. Daimler AG was confident enough in the joint venture’s results to open up its own Mercedes-Benz fuel cell production facility in 2012, with about half of the employees there having worked at Ballard or the resulting Automotive Fuel Cell Corporation joint venture, estimated Klaus Berger, vice president of Daimler’s fuel cell division, but based in the new Burnaby, BC facility.




About Michael Bettencourt

Michael Bettencourt is on the World Car of the Year jury, has been a long-time AJAC member, and is on its Technology of the Year judging panel.