Fuel Cell Still Vital in Multi-Solution Future Mobility, Says Honda

Honda is one of the prime movers in promoting hydrogen fuel cell technology and yet it still doesn’t see a future with just one dominant powertrain.

Global pressures to place an ever-increasing reliance on renewable energy sources may see fossil fuels take second billing to battery or fuel cell electric vehicles but can yet be seen as the only way forward, according to Honda’s Steve Center vice-president environmental business development Honda America.

Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive at the 2019 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Center was clear that future mobility will depend on consumer demands instead of any slavish addiction to a favored technology. He said: “We see the future of powertrains being a multi-solution one. Let’s face it, batteries have some short-comings and fuel-cell electric vehicles have some challenges too and both have challenges with infrastructure.

“If I can start with batteries, we’re fighting the laws of the universe with energy density, with weight, with cold weather performance and end-of-life recycling issues. So, we see the future will be many solutions depending on what people want. For a suburban home-owner, who has a predictable schedule and can charge at home, may find a battery electric vehicle is perfect for them.

“Whereas, someone who is a city dweller and doesn’t have access to charging and has very random driving and mobility needs, the fuel-cell vehicle represents the least change in life-style. It’s just a matter of getting the fueling infrastructure deployed and that will take time.”

EV technologies have required a considerable amount of investment both by automakers and regulators in many countries offering taxpayer cash to get consumers in to what many perceive as cleaner technology than ICE vehicles. In this, said Center, Honda has played a major role. He explained: “In the very beginning of this technology you had to put money up with start-ups and I’d say those brave pioneers were willing to get things done. We invested in a company called FirstElement Fuel who have done a great job in California in deploying some of the earliest and best service level stations. Since that time, Shell Oil has been getting involved in a bigger way and sees itself as having a big stake in renewables as does Total. In this way, I think the petrol companies are starting to see the world very differently. Yet this, again, will take time.”

Courting state and city authorities is also a key element of a modern carmaker’s work especially in terms of breaking down resistance to hydrogen fuel that some believe too volatile for mass market adoption. Center said: “We spend a lot of time talking to different regulatory groups and I was speaking recently with the Massachusetts DoT about the safety of the cars and allowing them on bridges and in tunnels. With these cars, everything is new, so you have to spend a lot of time explaining things about them.

“Naturally, on top of this we have to make sure the capital is deployed and making sure the early investors are rewarded with some kind of incentive, whether that’s tax credits of depreciation schedules and also that consumers are rewarded. So, it’s all of the above for stimulants for the technology.”

In a bid to boost infrastructure making hydrogen available more widely, some suggest that converting ICE vehicles to burn the gas instead of gasoline or diesel could be a short-term fix. Indeed, Honda’s own hydrogen production unit at its UK plant in Swindon provide the gas to local authority vehicles that have been converted to use hydrogen in a combustion engine.

However, Center does not see this solution having much longevity, saying: “BMW have tried this and Mazda saw great hopes with its rotary engines with hydrogen but combusting it provides less energy so we think the better solution is fuel cell.”

One of the biggest challenges for the automaker building fuel cell cars is the sheer cost of the technology and marketing the cars at a level to attract new buyers. Yet Center believes this is only an issue in the short-term. He explained: “Sure, fuel cell at the moment is expensive to produce but, at the moment, there is no scale and it needs continued refinement. So if you think about the 20 plus years that we have been working on this and are no in the sixth iteration of vehicle, we started with fuel cell stacks all over the place and have refined it down to one unit under the hood with the stack and motor being about the size of a V6 motor that we can apply to lots of products that we make. That was a huge evolution. We have a partnership with General Motors where we have further defined the stack and have got a lot of the cost out of it while boosting efficiency.”

Center is certain that time will be the key factor in what technologies will become dominant in future powertrains. He concluded: “It’s a continuing cycle and I think it’s somewhat unfair to expect the fuel cell’s evolution to be immediate when internal combustion engines have been around for 130 years. However, I think we are getting there very quickly and also, it’s similar with batteries which are very expensive and there’s no density improvement viable in the near future. Of course, we’re all looking for break-throughs and, maybe, it will be dilithium crystals if you’re a Star Trek fan?”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_


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