Fuel Cell For Transportation

Looking only at the data on units shipped, transport has had something of a quiet year in 2014. But there is tremendous activity beyond the numbers, including the first commercial lease, by Hyundai, of a fuel cell vehicle in the United States, to add to its deliveries in Europe and Korea. The focus of much of the industry, and the public, has been on cars. The year 2015 has for years been an important date in fuel cells, with the announced availability of fuel cell cars in showrooms – in a few places worldwide.

Hyundai has already started manufacturing, selling and leasing its ix35, delivering its first mass-produced vehicles to Europe in 2013 and its first vehicle to a California customer in June 2014. Toyota and Honda have shown the shells for their 2015 vehicles, and Toyota has put its considerable marketing muscle behind the rollout. Toyota’s president Toyoda, a trained auto racer, drove one of the new FCEVs as a pace car in a recent road rally in Japan. There is a possibility Toyota will begin offering vehicles in Japan in December 2014. It would be both astonishing and worrying if these makers did not follow through and make vehicles available next year, although Toyota is clearly more enthusiastic than Honda. Other companies are at varying stages along the path: GM continues to work on cost reduction and performance improvement, but has made no recent public announcement on release dates. It does have a partnership with Honda, however. Daimler pulled back last year from a previouslysuggested 2014-15 release, citing a new expanded partnership with not only its long-time associate Ford, but also Renault-Nissan, and the time it would take to get everyone to the same level of development. Daimler’s new date is 2017, for a vehicle that will be much more cost-effective (they say) than those in 2015. Neither Ford nor Nissan has committed to 2017 yet. VW, a long-time fuel cell cynic, is working with Ballard of Canada in an engineering services programme that could see much of Ballard’s very substantial knowhow delivered to VW’s engineering teams. Interestingly, VW also announced a partnership in 2014 with Shanghai’s SAIC, historically a partner of the GM fuel cell programme.

The German automotive sector’s representation is completed by BMW. In January the company announced a memorandum of understanding with Toyota on advanced drivetrains, and the media have suggested that a fuel cell variant of BMW’s electric i3 may be in the offing. Not all automotive OEMs have the deep pockets to invest in fuel cells. GM claims it has spent US$2.5 billion on the technology to date. So if the sector does emerge successfully, it may mirror the conventional vehicle sector: some companies will produce their own fuel cells, which they may share with others; and yet more will buy fuel cells from proven Tier 1 suppliers. Some fuel cell companiesbelieve they could be credible in that role: Ballard, whose 5-year automotive lock-out agreement with Daimler and AFCC expired early in 2014 is one; others include Nuvera, Intelligent Energy, who state that a European premium manufacturer has integrated one of their systems into a vehicle, and perhaps Hydrogenics, where GM retains a small stake. It is unlikely that these companies would themselves achieve qualified Tier 1 status, but they could licence and transfer technology to the typical suppliers in the space. Also in the frame for vehicle applications more broadly are smaller companies like Proton Motor in Germany and SymbioFCell of France. And Shen-Li and Sunrise Power in China have long been involved in providing stacks and systems for Chinese transportation projects. The transport sector is very diverse, however, and applications less sexy than cars are being developed around the world, from the well-known materials handling trucks through utility vehicles, buses and vans to go-karts. While bus demonstrations moved ahead in Europe, notably the Aberdeen project in Scotland and CHIC project in Europe, BC Transit in Canada announced that the Whistler fuel cell bus project – the largest in the world to date with 20 buses in full revenue service – had run its course. Both Ballard and Hydrogenics offer fuel cell power systems for buses, as does US Hybrid, which bought the PEM system designed by UTC for heavy vehicles including buses, though Ballard later bought the underlying patents. On the more sexy side, perhaps, are companies like GreenGT, quietly working on all-out race cars.

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