The agreement between Daimler, Ford, and Renault-Nissan will speed up the process of developing fuel-cell vehicles, like this Mercedes-Benz F-Cell.
It was 2002 when Daimler manager Hans-Joachim Schöpf said that from 2010 onward, the fuel-cell electric vehicle would be a viable alternative to conventionally powered cars. That date has long passed, and so have other targets announced by various automakers. It certainly needs to be taken with a grain of salt when Daimler, Renault-Nissan, and Ford now announce a plan to make fuel-cell vehicles for the mass market by 2017. But the target seems more realistic than ever, thanks to a new alliance entered by the four manufacturers to significantly cut cost and accelerate introductions to the market.
All three companies—or four, depending on how you count the Renault-Nissan alliance—bring considerable expertise to the table. Nissan’s competence in the area is undisputed; Daimler and Ford, on the other hand, probably can claim industry leadership with their Automotive Fuel Cell Cooperation (AFCC). The Burnaby, British Columbia–based technology house, which employs more than 200 people, will be a 50.1/49.9 percent joint venture between Daimler and Ford as of February 1, 2013, when Ford takes over the 19.9 percent share from fuel-cell pioneer Ballard Systems. The AFCC will remain an independent operation, but it will play a significant role in the joint project with Renault-Nissan.
As reality is setting in on the real-world capabilities and shortcomings of battery-electric vehicles—limited range, high weight, and charge times—the fuel-cell electric vehicle is beginning to look like a more viable alternative to conventionally powered cars. Their range is far superior to battery-electric vehicles, and they can be refueled within minutes. Cost has come down significantly and is expected to be further lowered.
- Feature: What the H? Everything You Need to Know About a Hydrogen-Fueled Future
- Instrumented Test: 2012 Mercedes-Benz F-Cell
- Instrumented Test: 2012 Honda Civic Natural Gas
So far, customer demand has been lackluster at best. Honda has managed to unload just 72 units of its FCX fuel-cell car. European-market users of fuel-cell vehicles complain that the few filling stations are not consistently in service. But now activities are picking up. Toyota has said that a fuel-cell vehicle could come to market by 2015 at retail prices around €100,000 (roughly $135,000 at current exchange rates); a jointly developed mass-market car by Toyota and BMW is expected for 2020.
The new Daimler/Ford/Renault-Nissan alliance will move more quickly. The model announced for 2017 will be affordable to mass-market consumers and will likely make use of a common platform. Things are suddenly looking a lot brighter for a hydrogen-powered future.
By Jens Meiners