Monday, May 16, 2005

Apollo for Fuel Cells
This weekend the leaders of Toyota and GM announced they would join forces to bring fuel cell cars closer to reality, as part of a more comprehensive technology alliance. Rumors in advance of the meeting in Japan suggested the alliance would be called "Project Apollo". Both firms have been investing heavily on fuel cell R&D as a pathway to a true zero-emission vehicle, after the market failure of battery-powered cars such as GM's EV-1 a few years ago. Not only is this a signal that neither company has given up on the prospect of fuel cell cars, but it also rebuffs those who think that hybrid cars eliminate the need for fuel cells.

There's no question that some of the early enthusiasm and optimism concerning fuel cells has abated, as developers grapple with the complexities of refueling infrastructure and standards, manufacturing economics, and the fundamental question of hydrogen supply. I remember telling my former company's top management in the late 1990s that fuel cell cars could be a reality by 2004. (I also told them that successful hybrids might delay fuel cells for a while.) Despite sustained progress in building prototype vehicles and refueling stations, practical fuel cell cars look nearly as far off now as they did then.

In light of these delays and the intervening success of hybrid cars, it's not surprising that some have concluded that hybrids can deliver comparable fuel savings with off-the-shelf technology and without requiring any new infrastructure, rendering fuel cell cars unnecessary and uneconomical. More aggressive hybrid advocates suggest that modified hybrids able to recharge from the power grid during off-peak hours would be as efficient and environmentally beneficial as fuel cells, from a total system ("well-to-wheels") perspective. Toyota, the world's largest and most successful manufacturer of hybrid cars, does not seem to agree with this prognosis. Rather, they are pursuing a consistent strategy of technology leadership, with hybrids as one component and fuel cells as another. Similarities in electric-drive and power-management systems ensure that these programs are at least partly synergistic.

Any shift toward hydrogen will be long and gradual, and hybrid cars are at least a key transition technology, particularly in a high oil price environment. The larger question of competing visions for a post-petroleum transportation future, between fuel cell cars running on renewable-source hydrogen versus hybrid cars running on biofuels, cannot be answered today and must be approached by creating viable options for each. Final judgment on a Toyota/GM Apollo Project must await details on commitments of capital and human resources, as well as a timetable for results, but it certainly looks like an important step toward creating a production fuel cell car that could be sold by both companies. When you consider that they jointly account for a quarter of the global auto market, this starts to look like a strategy to set the industry standards, as well.

No comments: