Here come the fuel cell vehicles

When it first aired in 1962, The Jetsons stirred our imaginations of how technology would one day be a routine part of our daily lives. Less obvious, was the breakthrough tipping point that would get us there and the necessary changes to infrastructures for it to become a reality. 

We haven’t made cars fly - yet - but technology that will transform the way we power vehicles is closer than you think. Next year, Toyota will bring its first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle to market. It is the culmination of more than 20 years of research, investment and testing around the globe. The ultimate goal is to achieve vehicles with zero emissions.

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Toyota’s fuel cell electric vehicle produces sufficient electrical power to spin the electric motor for 300 miles on a single fill-up. That’s like driving from Washington to Philadelphia and back. Filling up takes less than 5 minutes and the vehicle can go zero to 60 in less than 10 seconds, while emitting only water vapor from its tailpipe.

As remarkable as this technology is, the infrastructure to support it must still be developed. The Department of Energy estimates there are between 40-50 hydrogen-fueling stations across the country. But that includes a variety of private and fleet- only facilities. For example, the nearest station to the Washington metropolitan area is more than 100 miles away.

Transportation experts and environmentalists have hailed fuel cells as the next big environmental break through, but only a fraction of the country is ready for their arrival. Meanwhile, Germany, Japan, Korea, the UK, and Scandinavia have all invested in bringing this technology to market. Since fuel cells will be deployed where there is infrastructure, the U.S needs to keep pace if it wants to take part in this exciting technology.

However, the news is not all bad. The challenges are not insurmountable and progress is being made. For example, Toyota partnered with the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program to determine the most efficient distribution of refueling stations in California based on consumer habits, traffic patterns, population density and other data. The study found that the issue of infrastructure is not so much about how many, but location.

To achieve a goal of providing a refueling station within six-minutes, our model revealed that only 68 station sites were needed to serve the San Francisco Bay area, Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego counties. If implemented, the system could handle a fuel cell population conservatively estimated at about 10,000 vehicles.

Even more compelling is that if every vehicle in California ran on hydrogen, we could meet refueling logistics with only 15 percent of the nearly 10,000 gasoline stations currently operating in the state.   

The California Energy Commission, the Governors Zero Emission Vehicle Initiative, and the California Fuel Cell Partnership are all using this model to guide their hydrogen development plans.  

As well, governors from California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont have all signed a memorandum of understanding to pave the way for zero-emission vehicles, like fuel cells, and its essential infrastructure. 

So far, California has taken the biggest step forward. It has approved more than $200 million in funding for as many as 20 new stations by 2015 and 40 by 2016 and 100 by 2024. 

To realize the full potential of fuel cell vehicles, the hydrogen infrastructure must expand beyond the state of California.  

Policy and incentives to support successful market introduction and consumer acceptance will play a key role in making that possible. With fuel cell vehicles coming to market next year, Congress should extend the consumer and infrastructure tax credits beyond this year.   

The federal role is just one – a vital one – piece of a much larger puzzle where governments, academia, industry and private investment collaborate to help us realize the potential of this technology. 

Toyota doesn’t have all the answers but we know developing the infrastructure necessary for fuel cell vehicles will require a serious, bi-partisan commitment.  

Toyota is willing to do its part to help move things forward.

Patel is vice president of North American Business Strategy for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.

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