Japan unites industry in push for fuel cell cars, enthusiasm varies

United for hydrogen. (c) Bertel Schmitt

To allow for millions of new cars to be added without suffocating the globe, we need to switch to zero emissions in a hurry. Electric appears to be the way to go, and there are two ways to power the electric motors: Battery, and fuel cell. Batteries are easy, limited in range, and take long to charge. Fuel cells are technically involved, can give the car a long range, and take only minutes to refuel. They have a big drawback: The lack of hydrogen fuel stations. Yesterday, Japan made the first serious attempt to break that deadlock.

It’s a chicken and egg situation:  Without many fuel stations, there won’t be many fuel cell cars. Without many fuel cells cars, there won’t be many hydrogen fuel stations. A Japanese alliance of government, automakers, gas companies, and banks set out to produce a hydrogen breakthrough. At a joint press conference in Tokyo, eleven companies threw their considerable industrial might behind a project to bring the number of hydrogen fuel stations from currently 101 to 320 in 2025, and to 900 in 2030. Their consortium has the, at least for foreign ears, somewhat unfortunate name “JHyM,” which stands for “Japan H2 Mobility LLC,” we were told.

Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry, Hireshige Seko, sent a video message, promising that his government “will make an all-out effort to promote the realization of a hydrogen-based society.” Probably to the chagrin of Japan’s watch industry, the minister prominently flashed an Apple watch throughout the video.

The chicken part of the project is illustrated by the fact that currently there are only 2,400 hydrogen-powered cars in all of Japan. As for the egg, hydrogen gas station operators suffer from a lack of business, and an abundance of boredom, complaining that there is “only one customer a day,” a reporter said at the event. According to the plans of the Japanese government, the loneliness of the hydrogen gas station operator should end soon. Plans reiterated at yesterday’s event call for 40,000 FCVs on Japanese roads by 2020, swelling to 200,000 five years later, and 800,000 by 2030. By that time, fuel cell stations should be able to support themselves from sales. Until then, they will be kept alive with government subsidies.

Toyota, Nissan, and Honda are members of the consortium, but as it stands now, the weight of the planned FCV sales will fall on the shoulders of Toyota. “Not all Japanese carmakers are very enthusiastic about the development of FCVs,” remarked another journalist yesterday, and right he his. Nissan provides only moral, and lukewarm support to the hydrogen society. At a fuel-cell confab the week before, a Nissan representative said the market should decide over fuel cell or battery, and it was clear what the maker of battery-powered Leafs would prefer. Honda has made some experiments with its Clarity, but its heart does not appear to be in it.

Shigeki Terashi, Toyota’s man on the board of JHyM, offered his company’s help to equip the laggards, saying that “FCVs require a  greater collaboration of many participants  –  we should focus on fuel cell stacks, which could be made available to other OEMs.”

Teamwork may be necessary if Japan does not want to fall behind. According to charts shown yesterday, China and German surprisingly might be further along the road towards a hydrogen society. China announced plans for 350 hydrogen stations by 2025. Germany wants to have 400 stations by that date, which should be enough to keep the much smaller country adequately supplied with hydrogen.