Fuel cell vehicles can be commercially viable in California, North America's largest car market, but a concerted development effort and government assistance are necessary to get them on the road, according to an industry study released on Oct. 16.
The first cars will likely be those aimed at corporate fleets, but the study said carmakers must quickly introduce a wider variety of products such as sport utility vehicles to interest consumers.
The study, prepared for a private-public coalition testing the environmentally friendly vehicles, is one of the first in-depth looks at the challenges facing a technology that some have described as a replacement for the internal combustion engine.
Obstacles such as creating adequate fuel processing equipment on the vehicles still exist, but if progress continues "all other challenges to (fuel cell vehicle) commercialization can be overcome," according to the study for the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CFCP).
Fuel cells produce electricity from hydrogen by using a chemical reaction, but developers differ over what fuels the cars will reformulate to get the hydrogen. Alternatives range from special gasolines to methanol and ethanol.
According to the CFCP study, commercialization will come more rapidly if developers can come to an agreement that the first cars on the market will use compressed hydrogen, and allow time to develop the equipment needed to reformulate hydrogen from liquid fuels.
"Automakers, fuel providers and government of all level must cooperate to develop an adequate public demand for FCV (fuel cell vehicles)," the study said.
Automakers have predicted their first fuel cell vehicles would reach consumers between 2003 and 2005, but researchers caution it could take several years to reach a target of 2 to 5 percent of all vehicles sold in California.
California is seen as the first major market for fuel cell cars because the state's air pollution problems have led to stricter pollution controls, forcing it to push the car makers into developing alternatives to the petroleum-burning internal combustion engine, which is a source of much of the smog plaguing Los Angeles and other metropolitan centers.
The fuel cell is considered an environmentally friendly technology because the only direct by-products of the process are heat and water, but the study warns the vehicles are not "zero emission" because the fuel reformulating equipment creates pollutants.
FCVs Can't Depend on Public Support: Study
While promoters of fuel cell vehicles must increase public awareness of the technology's environmental benefits, they cannot depend on public support to make the cars a quick commercial success, according to the CFCP study.
"FCV environmental benefits need to be presented as a pathway to long-term future societal benefits rather than early major improvements," the study said. Some of these benefits may take decades to realize, it noted.
Government and industry must also acknowledge the potential non-transportation benefits of fuel cell vehicles, such as their ability to supply electricity to homes when not being driven, the study said.
A major roadblock to the use of fuel cells in vehicles is the lack of fueling infrastructure. Even the gasoline eyed by some designers as a source of the fuel cells' hydrogen is different from gasoline now available, and would require service stations to undergo expensive retrofits.
The study cautions government may have to assume some of the financial risk in building the fueling infrastructure. That would avoid a Catch-22 situation with energy firms leery of investing in infrastructure until fuel cell cars are on the road, but with cars unable to be sold until a fueling infrastructure is in place.
Among the suggestions offered by the researchers is that the U.S. federal and state governments could create a public corporation "to build, operate, and eventually sell the FCV fuel delivery infrastructure."
The study did not directly compare the economics of the different fuel types, but the researchers suggested ethanol faced the biggest marketing problems, due mostly to the a lack of adequate production capacity.
The researchers did not recommend a preferred fuel type. This is at least partially because the California Fuel Cell Partnership includes private sector members that are promoting competing fuel technologies.