Weekly Brief: China Propels Hydrogen Into Auto Mainstream

Hydrogen fuel cell technology has solidified an important new ally in the Chinese government.

Last week word came out of Beijing that China is committed to investing in, promoting and building out the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. The government will encourage local carmakers to develop and deploy hydrogen-powered vehicles, in an attempt to curb pollution and create the world’s largest green car market.

Granted, China is already the largest green car market thanks to its leading production of battery-powered electric vehicles. The government’s endorsement of hydrogen fuel cell technology doesn’t signal a shift away from BEVs. Instead, China envisions a future where hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and BEVs work in concert, with BEVs thriving in urban environments while hydrogen fuel cell vehicles manage longer-distance travel outside of cities, particularly in the trucking and bussing industries.

“We believe that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and pure electric vehicles will coexist and complement each other for a long time to meet the needs of transportation and people’s travel,” said Huang Libin of the Chinese Ministry of Industry and Information Technology in an interview with Reuters.

Readers familiar with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles’ tortured past will recognize the significance of this statement. Hydrogen-powered vehicles have been around for longer than self-driving cars have. Early experiments reach all the way back to General Motors’ 1966 Electrovan and yet hydrogen fuel cell technology has remained on the periphery, watching as BEVs become both the ‘golden child’ of the green car revolution and the target goal of eco-conscious countries around the world. Devotees of the hydrogen revolution, who believe that their cause is the cleaner and smarter one (hydrogen powered cars, they claim, can go farther and recharge faster than BEVs), are still greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism from many in the car industry. As the old joke goes: “Hydrogen: it’s the fuel of the future and it always will be.”

So, let’s not overlook the importance of the Chinese government throwing its full weight behind hydrogen fuel cell technology. Fresh off the announcement, Toyota revealed last week that it’s forged a partnership with China’s state-owned Beijing Automotive Group to supply the carmaker with fuel cell parts and technology. The first project on the docket is hydrogen-powered buses set for deployment in time for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

What’s more, Hyundai came out last week as a champion for hydrogen fuel cell technology. It says that it plans to focus its future on hydrogen-powered cars instead of BEVs for Korean markets. Our Paul Myles has more here.

Meanwhile in the US, Toyota unveiled its first market-ready hydrogen-powered truck (Paul Myles was on top of that story as well) and a start-up out of Arizona called Nikola Motor unveiled a plan to take hydrogen mainstream in the trucking industry. The start-up is seeking $1.25Bn to build out a network of 700 hydrogen stations across the country and to deploy a massive fleet of hydrogen-powered tractor trailers. The company has already raised $400M and is four years deep into development. Nikola says that its hydrogen stations will be open to hydrogen-powered big rigs no matter who manufactures them.

None of this activity guarantees that hydrogen will succeed, of course, but it sure does feel closer to mainstream traction than it ever has before. Is it the fuel of the future? We’re about to find out.

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