I’ll start with the new BMW i8 Hydrogen Fuel Cell portotype to talk about my days with Honda and where this all started.
Here is what I know is going to happen and forms the basis of my argument: While not perfect today in it’s current level of technical development, hydrogen fueling/refueling is what will power our future!
It all started back with this homely little “Cabin on Wheels” as Dave Marek, Honda North America Design Chief, explained to me.
This was Honda’s technical and design prototype to show off the companies hydrogen and fuel cell expertise. It was a pure technology demonstrator and thus, was not a looker.
This car was worth, at the time and as I was told, between $1.5 and $2 million dollars. This is one of the prototypes I nearly crashed and is one of the funny stories of my early automotive career.
Let it be known that if crashed, I would not have been at fault: it would have been the idiot who pulled right out in front of me, into traffic without looking at all. I swerved out into the opposite lane and by pure luck, no one was going the other way. Needless to say I had to stop and catch my breath, change my drawers and count my lucky stars.
I had already had a lawyer, of all things, rear end me in a company car while one of the VP’s was standing there waiting for a ride. Nothing like having an impatient lawyer pressing you to let her go and not worry about it while your boss stands there and expects you to get all the info exchanged and remain composed as you are a representative of the company. This whole sorted trip and ‘job’ is why I hate Vancouver and it’s residents!
Back to the car and hydrogen: Most people are skeptical about hydrogen for two reasons: one, there are no filling stations and that infrastructure will take decades to build out. Two, it blows up, remember the Hindenburg?
In regards to infastructure, no it’s not simple and yes, it will take time, but, and it’s a huge BUT, if there is a market there, the Shell’s of the world and all traditional petro chemical companies will install a hydrogen fueling pump in a blink of an eye.
Infastructure is not the hurdle that people make it out to be. It’s the proverbial mountain out of a mole hill. It’s still a hill to climb but not as hard as you think. The difficulty with hydrogen isn’t the pump, it’s the storage and transport with tanker trucks.
I’m not convinced that storage is a real problem but transport by tanker truck I can understand. The lengths too which automakers go to build the onboard storage tanks for hydrogen is extreme. A GM engineer shared a story with me about how they firded 50 caliber sniper rounds at the tanks in the Equinox hydrogen prototypes to prove their strength. As well as towing them behind a vehicle, on chains, to see how tough and abration resistent the tanks were.
Stepping back, you see what the automakers at the time thought. Hydrogen will simply replace gas/diesel in the exact same manner and infastructure. That’s a simple idea but flawed, understandable, but flawed.
Moving forward, how do we ‘power’ our cars in the future? Under the old traditional system, when we need gas we go to a gas station and ‘fill ur up’. We’ve been doing that for 100 years and it works. Is there another way though?
At the time in the early 2000’s Honda had the answer at this show in Vancouver and most people ignored it or didn’t quite get it or believe it. It was this:
It looks like a PC sitting next to an electric motor. It looked a little different when I first saw it but essentially the same size and purpose. It’s a home hydrogen generator/producer. This is a power generation station for your home.
I thought this was by far the best thing about the hydrogen infasrtructure and future I saw at the show. Why do I need to go to a gas station? I can just fuel up at home in my garage.
Most people looked at me funny when I said it but I was right. Remember at that time hybrids were a fairly new thing and PHEV’s hadn’t even been spoken about yet. The very idea that you would power your car at home, by plugging it in was foreign to us.
The action of ‘plugging in’ isn’t the ‘thing’ here, it’s the “Powered at Home” idea and action that is the breakthrough. Fairly simple in concept and execution but hard to tackle mentally for most as we are totally acustomed to going to a gas station.
Yesterday we thought the idea of gassing up at home was impossible as we don’t have the space, infastructure or permits to have an oil refinery in our backyards. Plugging in at home is just easy and second nature now, but the next step was to leave the idea of going off property to a gas station behind.
Not only could you plug your car in, this brilliant little box can power your entire house. Solar panels on your roof provided most of the hydrogen and in theory and even in current practice, it works.
Having said that I know there are linitations on the technology as it stands today.
The box isn’t that small and the rate of hydrogen production through solar cells on a typical roof has struggled to meet the total amounts needed to power our complete needs but it works and is getting better all the time.
What we do about condo and apartment dwellers I’m not sure but larger systems, of industrial size and strength are currently available and just as their smaller consumer siblings are doing, they are getting better and cheaper all the time.
It’s not easy and it’s not cheap, but we are going to do it. That quote could have come from anyone from 1890 to 1920 when it came to explaining how the average Joe was going to fuel his electric/mechanical horse, or as we call it, his Model T.
From zero gas stations, no infastructure what so ever, to covering the nation, coast to coast, boarder to border in about 20 years. Today, in most of the country, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a gas station or toss a stone without ricocheting off at least 4 other stations on the same block. Why do people toss dead cats anyways?
I think hydrogen is inevitable and proof comes today in the form of BMW, Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and almost all other manufacturers producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as prototypes or even for sale to the public in first step actions.
As it stands today, hydrogen has the ability to fufil the 2 distinct paths to fueling/refueling that we need moving forward: retrofitted traditional gas stations or home refueling. Only eclectricity as we have it today in our electric cars, PHEV’s or PEV’s can do the same but where the power comes from is it’s Achilles heel.
For those of you interested or those who didn’t know, that ugly little “Cabin on Wheels”, the first generation Honda FCX turned into this beauty, which if you live in California, you can buy/lease:
The other reason I know hydrogen is what’s next, I can’t share because of the project I’m involved with now but I hope to share with you soon. Needless to say, engineers and scientists around the world are working on this technology as you read this.