Car Culture: Don't write off fuel cell vehicles yet

John McCormick
Special to The Detroit News

Los Angeles – Skeptics like to say that the zero-emissions fuel cell vehicle, like nuclear fusion, is a technology of the future, and always will be. Such cynicism, however, ignores recent advances.

At the Los Angeles show last month both the Volkswagen Group and Toyota highlighted their latest fuel cell vehicles. The automakers showed how progress is turning science fiction into fact, with fuel cell vehicles that consumers can see, drive and even buy.

In the past few years, several automakers, such as Honda, have made FCVs available to lease in very limited numbers, while others, including General Motors, Hyundai and Mercedes-Benz, are operating fuel cell test fleets.

But Toyota is the first to offer a FCV for sale. Consumers can purchase Toyota's new Camry-sized Mirai FCV in the U.S. next year and the company anticipates initial sales of at least 700 worldwide. That's still a drop in the bucket compared to conventional vehicle sales, or even electric vehicle numbers, but it's a big step forward for FCVs. Part of its showroom appeal will be a price of $57,000 (not including various federal and state incentives of up to $13,000).

Expensive? Sure, but considering the advanced technology in the Mirai, it's a bargain price. As with the Prius hybrid in its early days, the Mirai is being heavily subsidized by Toyota. However the company believes that in time the Mirai could go on to emulate the undeniable success of the Prius.

The FCV strategy at Volkswagen group, as demonstrated with development vehicles based on a VW Passat, Golf Sportwagen and the Audi A7, is to create showroom-ready models so that the company can move to market swiftly when it believes the time is right. According to VW Group of America CEO Michael Horn, the main obstacle to near term launch of fuel cell vehicles is the lack of fueling infrastructure.

There are a handful of hydrogen fueling facilities mainly in California and some east coast locations, but "we need lots of filling stations," said Horn. "The hydrogen also needs to be generated from sustainable sources like wind and solar power."

Both the Golf Sportwagen Hymotion and Audi A7 h-tron quattro FCVs made their world debuts in LA. These prototypes, plus the VW Passat FCV, take a different tack to many competitors such as Toyota and Honda in that they install the fuel cell, battery pack, hydrogen tanks and hybrid drivetrain componentry in standard production vehicles as opposed to brand new platform designs.

This approach dramatically lowers production costs because the FCVs can be built alongside conventional models in existing factories. What's more, clever packaging of the fuel cell componentry means little if any interior space is sacrificed compared to standard versions.

Best of all, however, is the driving experience. A few laps of downtown Los Angeles in the VW Passat and Audi A7 shows that FCVs have graduated from the clunky rolling laboratory stage, to smooth, refined, easy to drive cars that feel much the same as their conventional engine counterparts.

Both the VW and Audi offer impressive 300 mile-plus ranges and, as plug-in hybrids, can drive modest distances on battery alone. While the VW highlights the efficiency of the fuel cell powertrain, the Audi A7 adds a layer of sporty performance by incorporating a second electric motor for the rear axle, thus enabling Quattro all-wheel-drive capability. As such the A7 h-tron is in rarefied company, as the only other electric vehicle to offer all-wheel drive is the just-launched dual motor Tesla Model S.

As the auto industry is being directed by governments to move towards zero-emission vehicles, many automakers acknowledge that fuel cell vehicles, with their efficiency and range advantages, offer the only long-term solution. For consumers the prospect of FCVs appearing in showrooms in the coming years should be welcomed. To judge by the VW and Audi examples, fuel cell vehicles will be technically fascinating and far from dull or boring to drive.

John McCormick is a columnist for Autos Consumer and can be reached at