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Automakers Criticize Fuel Cells

GM and Toyota leaders admit that hydrogen fuel cells have serious problems.

  • March 5, 2008

The world’s top automakers’ leaders finally woke up, looked around, and realized what many experts have been saying for years: hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles don’t make much sense. At the auto show in Geneva yesterday, Bob Lutz, GM’s vice chairman, the global-warming skeptic who is nevertheless leading the charge at GM in promoting cleaner vehicles, seems to have come close to conceding that the company’s much advertised fuel-cell program is little more than a marketing gimmick.

He said that fuel cells are still far too expensive, and that advances in lithium-ion batteries likely make fuel cells unnecessary, according to a report in today’s Wall Street Journal.

As Toyota’s president, Katsuaki Watanabe, voiced his skepticism about the technology, he noted that fuel cells are expensive and that infrastructure for distributing hydrogen widely doesn’t exist.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government continues to pour money into research related to fuel-cell vehicles.

Experts have argued that powering cars with electricity distributed via the grid and stored in batteries is far more efficient than making hydrogen from water and distributing it. (For more arguments against hydrogen, see “Hype about Hydrogen.”) What’s more, the infrastructure to do so is already in place. Better batteries are needed for long-range electric cars. But cars that use batteries for daily driving and efficient gasoline or diesel engines for extended trips could overcome that problem while leading to significantly reduced greenhouse emissions.

Hydrogen may yet play an important role in the future, however. It could serve as a way to store energy from the sun to be used at night. To this end, researchers are developing more efficient ways to split water with sunlight. (See “Cheap Hydrogen.”)

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