Earlier this month, GM and Honda announced they are embarking on a long-term agreement to co-develop next-generation fuel cell technologies and infrastructure, with the goal of driving the technology forward faster. The target date the automakers are shooting for is 2020.
“We’re working together to innovate and drive costs down,” says Charles Freese, GM’s executive director of global fuel cell activities, adding that this is the first time two major automakers have undertaken a co-development project of this magnitude. “If we have a common system to produce, it helps develop the supply chain,” he says.
Fuel cells typically work by converting hydrogen (the fuel) and oxygen into water; the process produces electricity that can power vehicles while emitting only water vapor. With a range and refueling time that is comparable to gas-powered vehicles, fuel cell technology is considered by some to be the most promising of all the zero-carbon emission technologies. But after years of development, the technology still hasn’t taken off in cars.
“Fuel cells offer so many opportunities,” Freese explains. “You can solve the problem of emissions and can get energy from virtually any source, including renewables. The challenge is taking the technology through a few learning cycles, bringing the cost down, and maturing the infrastructure.”
According to Freese, it’s a chicken and egg problem: Consumers are reluctant to buy cars for which refueling stations are scarce; suppliers are hesitant to build a refueling infrastructure for cars that consumers aren’t buying. While the idea of two rival automakers joining forces to develop technology is unprecedented, in this case, it seems to make sense since GM and Honda rank No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in total fuel cell patents filed between 2002 and 2012, with more than 1,200 between them. There’s a lot at stake for both GM and Honda financially if fuel cell technology fails to take off.
Freese says GM’s collaboration with Honda is a strategy to cross “the valley of death” as both companies attempt to bring expensive fuel cell technology to market while competing with the combustion engine, which is relatively low-cost and (of course) has a widespread refueling infrastructure in place.
In the United States, there are a few places Freese says a workable fuel cell infrastructure wouldn’t be hard to build. Efforts would likely start in the Los Angeles area and in Hawaii, where consumers are already interested in owning fuel cell vehicles and fuel prices are high.