Future of Travel

Why the auto industry still believes in hydrogen fuel-cell tech despite slow progress

Battery-electric cars have jumped ahead of fuel-cell vehicles, but automakers like GM and Honda are still investing in the tech.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

The first hydrogen-powered vehicle—GM’s Electrovan prototype—debuted in 1966.

Fast-forward nearly 60 years, and fuel-cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, still aren’t mainstream. But if some big bets within the auto industry pay off, we’ll see hydrogen-powered trucks cruising down highways alongside their battery-powered cousins as fossil fuel–guzzling ICE vehicles someday go the way of the dodo.

GM and Honda recently moved in that direction, beginning commercial production of hydrogen fuel-cell systems at a plant outside of Detroit. The 50-50 joint venture started in 2017, supported by an $85 million investment by the automakers.

“It took decades before some of the technological enablers came along to allow us to make this a practical technology,” Charlie Freese, executive director of GM’s hydrogen fuel-cell business, told Tech Brew.

In a press release, GM and Honda said they were able to reduce costs by about two-thirds from Honda’s previous-generation technology via improvements in areas like design, sourcing, and reduction of costly metals.

Tech specs

So how do fuel-cell vehicles work?

“They are electric vehicles. They use the same electric motors, the same power inverters, power electronics, that you’ll find on any battery-electric vehicle,” Sam Abuelsamid, a principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, told us. “The only difference is that instead of storing the electricity in a battery, they’re storing it in the form of hydrogen and generating the electricity as needed.”

Fuel cells can be stacked to create systems that can power everything from vehicles to auxiliary power units on airplanes to backup power stations. Proponents of FCEVs point to benefits like quick refueling, quiet operations, and their lack of tailpipe emissions other than water vapor, Abuelsamid said.

“You can use the hydrogen as a way to store excess energy produced by renewable sources like wind or solar or wave power,” Abuelsamid said. “You can take the electricity that’s being generated from these sources…and instead of putting it into a battery, which is stationary, you can put it into an electrolyzer, which generates hydrogen. That is what they call ‘green hydrogen’…and then you can compress that hydrogen or liquefy it and transport it.”

Hit the road

So why aren’t more fuel-cell vehicles on the road today?

The auto industry has been developing fuel-cell tech for decades. It’s long been regarded as a promising alternative to diesel-powered vehicles. And it could play an important role in helping meet government regulations aimed at curbing emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.

Still, it has lagged behind the development and adoption of battery-electric vehicles (BEV).

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BEV technology is “very well-suited to the smaller vehicles, because those are your everyday drivers,” Freese said. “They don’t haul super-heavy payloads. They spend most of their time parked either at your house or your place of work…You can afford the time to recharge those batteries and you can put enough battery on board to move the vehicle and do what the customer expects.”

But, at the moment, fuel cells make more sense in vehicles like heavy-duty trucks, Freese said: “That’s where it provides value that is unique to the fuel cell and difficult to match with other electrification technologies.”

Hydrogen’s adoption has been slow in part because it remains expensive and there is not yet a robust fueling network, Abuelsamid said, noting that, right now, there are only 65 such stations in the US and Canada, mostly in California.

“It’s the classic chicken-and-egg problem,” Abuelsamid said. “Without fuel-cell vehicles, nobody wants to invest in building out hydrogen fueling infrastructure. And without a fueling network, it’s hard to sell fuel-cell vehicles.”

Still, major players like Nikola, Hyundai, GM, Volvo, and Honda continue to invest in hydrogen fuel cells and see them as a useful complement to BEVs. Automakers have largely shifted to heavy-duty applications (though Honda plans to introduce an FCEV version of its CR-V crossover next year).

Honda is developing a fuel cell–powered heavy-duty truck with Isuzu Motors Limited. The companies started testing a prototype of the Giga Fuel Cell on roads in Japan last December, with plans to debut a production model in 2027. Honda is also workshopping a Class 8 hydrogen fuel-cell truck in the US.

The automaker also uses a stationary fuel cell to provide backup power for a data center on its Torrance, California, campus.

GM has an agreement with Autocar Industries to develop a lineup of zero-emission vocational vehicles powered by fuel cells. The automaker also recently announced an agreement with Komatsu to co-develop a hydrogen fuel-cell model for the Komatsu 930E electric drive mining truck.

The thinking goes that such vehicles don’t fare as well with batteries because the trucks carry heavy payloads and don’t have time for lengthy recharging sessions, Abuelsamid said.

“With the hydrogen fuel cell, we can move the heaviest of the vehicles with the heaviest payloads, the longest distances, and we can get petrol-type refueling times,” Freese said. “That’s where we’re finding the sweet spot for fuel cells.”

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Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.