A decade from now, the phrase “eat my dust” could very well be replaced by “eat my water vapor,” due in large part by the commercial success of next generation fuel cell vehicles.
Next year Toyota will do its part by bringing its first hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle to market. It is the culmination of more than 20 years of research, investment, and testing around the globe in search of a fueling solution that generates zero emissions. It can travel up to 300 miles on one tank while emitting only clean water vapor from the tailpipe.
As remarkable as this technology is, the fueling infrastructure to support it remains a challenge. The 300-mile drive from D.C. to Philly can only be accomplished if prospective drivers can find a place to fill the tank in the first place.
Currently, the Department of Energy estimates there are between 40-50 hydrogen-fueling stations across the country, but that includes a variety of private and fleet-only facilities not available to the general public. Practically speaking, the nearest station to the Washington metropolitan area is more than 100 miles away.
But the tide may be changing. Various states around the country have recognized the need for investment ahead of the rollout of these next generation vehicles. Governors from California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont have all signed a memorandum of understanding to pave the way for zero-emission vehicles, like fuel cells, and their essential infrastructure.
What’s more, California has already approved more than $200 million in funding for as many as 20 new stations by 2015, 40 by 2016, and 100 by 2024. Alongside this commitment, Toyota has partnered with the University of California Irvine’s Advanced Power and Energy Program to determine the most efficient distribution of refueling stations in California based on consumer habits, traffic patterns, population density, and other data. The study found that the issue of infrastructure is not so much about how many, but where these refueling stations should be.
Policy and incentives to support successful market introduction and consumer acceptance will play a key role in making that possible. With fuel cell vehicles coming to market next year, Congress should extend the consumer and infrastructure tax credits beyond this year.
Since fuel cells will be deployed only where there is infrastructure, the U.S. needs to keep pace if it wants to take part in this exciting technology transition. Transportation experts and environmentalists have hailed fuel cells as the next big environmental breakthrough, but only a fraction of the country is ready for their arrival. Meanwhile, Germany, Japan, Korea, the UK, and Scandinavian countries have all invested in infrastructure to bring this technology to market.
The challenges are not insurmountable and progress is being made. But for the U.S. to keep up with the competitive advantages other countries will realize by embracing the next generation of vehicles, the federal role remains a vital piece of a much larger puzzle where governments, academia, industry, and private investment collaborate to help us realize the potential of this technology.
Tom Stricker is Vice President, Technical & Regulatory Affairs for Toyota Motor North America, Inc.