Under President George W. Bush, hydrogen-powered cars were the automotive technology of the future, with the promise of ditching gasoline and driving for miles with only water as exhaust.
But a lackluster market and tepid government support made the technology less of a priority, especially as electric cars and hybrids took off. Hydrogen cars became regarded as more of a fantasy than the future. Until now.
Honda made headlines when it unveiled its FCV Concept fuel-cell car at the Detroit Auto Show this month, with plans to roll out its 300-mile-range car to U.S. markets in 2016. Toyota will move its Mirai in the U.S. at the end of this year, and there's already a cluster of cars and fueling stations in California.
There's even more investment going on in Japan, where Tokyo will spend $385 million to build hydrogen infrastructure to help Toyota and Honda put 6,000 hydrogen cars on the road ahead of the 2020 Olympics there. Plus, Toyota made publicly available more than 5,000 of its patents on hydrogen technology, allowing other car companies to look at and work on it.
In the U.S., automakers say it's time for the government to catch up. Back in 2003, Bush was bullish on hydrogen cars, announcing a $1.2 billion research investment to help the country "lead the world in developing clean, hydrogen-powered automobiles."
"With a new national commitment, our scientists and engineers will overcome obstacles to taking these cars from laboratory to showroom so that the first car driven by a child born today could be powered by hydrogen, and pollution-free," Bush said in his 2003 State of the Union address.
That hasn't become the reality, and in 2009, the Obama administration slashed the research funding, saying the technology wouldn't be practical for another 10 to 20 years. With limited fueling-infrastructure available and few cars on the market, the government's focus instead went into electric vehicles and hybrids. An $8,000 tax credit to purchase fuel-cell cars was allowed to expire at the end of last year.
Now automakers and supporters are trying to get the administration back on track to level the playing field and bring hydrogen cars to the driveway. Toyota and others have pushed for a tax credit for the purchase of a fuel cell vehicle—currently, a driver can get $7,500 for buying a plug-in electric car but nothing for hydrogen.
And supporters want states and governments to help fund the costly installation of fueling stations, without which they say the cars can't compete.
John Hanson, a spokesman for Toyota, said that company's going to work with Congress to restore the tax credit. The MIrai will retail for upwards of $57,000, making the tax credit a big help. Hanson said they're also looking for help on infrastructure, similar to a model in California that has tied public investment to input from automakers to pay for new stations.
Sen. Thomas Carper, D-Del.—who gleefully recalled on the floor almost hitting a person while test driving a fuel cell-powered minivan—offered an amendment on the Senate Keystone XL bill that would have established a $4,000 tax credit for five years and an investment tax credit of 30 percent for fueling stations.
The amendment was withdrawn, but Carper will continue to press for the incentives.
Amid a push to clean up tailpipe pollution and reduce dependence on foreign oil, hydrogen cars seem like an ideal option. Their power comes from a fuel cell that uses electricity to convert hydrogen atoms into electricity and water. Rather than pollution and smog, the tailpipe emits only clean water.
And the vehicles don't carry the same upstream problem that's dogged electric cars, which have to draw power from a grid fueled in part by coal-burning power plants (although a European Joint Research Center report noted that certain techniques for producing fuel cells do carry major climate impacts).
But there were plenty of barriers to their adoption, chief among them how to charge them up. Unlike electric cars, which can just be plugged in, a fuel-cell car needs an influx of hydrogen (the fueling works much like filling a traditional gas-powered car). That infrastructure is expensive and, right now, rare, outside of a cluster of a dozen or so in Southern California.
"Hydrogen is not something that's available around the corner, so for quite a while it's going to have to be for people who are driving those cars locally," said Phil Gott, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "You won't be able to plan a cross-country trip without hydrogen."
Honda says it is pushing for more charging stations in California, where the state's zero-emission vehicle mandate presents an open market. California this spring announced plans to spend nearly $50 million to bring the state's total to 58 stations.
At the D.C. Auto Show, Toyota representatives also outlined a plan for a network of charging stations along the East Coast.
But as with any new technology, there's also just a plain old comfort barrier. When Bush was making his case for hydrogen cars, some critics mocked automakers as pushing it as a stunt. Comparisons to the Hindenburg dogged the cars—not helped by this joking anecdote from then-Ford CEO Alan Mulally about Bush nearly plugging in an electric outlet to the hydrogen port.
And they've been out of the spotlight for years with no federal research or work being done behind the scenes to drive down the cost of the fuel cells and improve the safety of vehicles. The technology is used in fleet buses but has yet to make a public dent in the car market, and it may stay that way for a while.
"We're talking about hundreds [of vehicles] in California, but its going to be years before we can talk about thousands and tens of thousands," said Dave Reichmuth, an engineer with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "Certain companies are moving quicker on fuel cells than others, but everyone's moving toward electrification in some way."