Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time
Developers of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) face some basic challenges in preparing their prototypes to handle the extremes of winter, as highlighted in this recent article in the Automobile section of the Sunday New York Times. The primary concern is that the membranes in a polymer-type fuel cell can be damaged if the water in the cell freezes, and carmakers are having to find some clever workarounds. By itself, though, no one should see this as an insurmountable obstacle to fuel cell vehicle adoption, unless the overall performance of these cars remains inferior to that of internal combustion powered cars.

You'd have to be in your nineties to remember when early piston-engine automobiles suffered from similar problems. Modern radiator anti-freeze only dates back to the 1930s, and prior to that, motorists either had to keep their cars above freezing or use methanol in the radiator, which created other problems. People continued to buy early cars in spite of limitations that we would now find totally unacceptable, because cars represented such an improvement, and because owning one was considered cool (or hep or whatever the term would have been.)

Unfortunately for FCV developers, the competition isn't horses and trolleys, but engine technology that has been refined continuously for a century to a high degree of reliability and performance. Hybrids raise the competitive bar even higher, by delivering fuel economy that approaches that of an FCV, with technology that is less radical and--at least today--perceived as more reliable.

Aside from all the other impediments to rapid commercialization of FCVs, such as infrastructure availability, hydrogen supply, and the high cost of fuel cell stacks (all of which are very big issues), I still think the key will be consumer acceptance. Will there will be enough early adopters prepared to take a step or two backwards on convenience and reliability to get the next "great leap forward"? You can bet carmakers are paying extremely close attention to the profiles and demographics of the folks buying hybrids today.

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