Reading General Motors and Toyota’s Lips in Fuel Cell Race

While Toyota distances itself from a fuel cell commercialization timetable, GM is sticking to its 2010 target

Published: 19-Jan-2005

Auto manufacturers' views on fuel cell commercialization seem to show growing discrepancies as they continue improving fuel cell systems. To understand where the auto companies are headed, one needs to read between the lines of their announcements.

Let's take Toyota, for instance. Historically the company developed its own in-house technology when it comes to the engine, and other essential parts of its vehicle platforms. Along with Honda, the company has been one of the pioneers in hybrid technology, and Toyota has been developing its own fuel cell stacks for some time.

While Toyota has been testing its fuel cell vehicles in both California and Japan, the company's top executives have somewhat distanced themselves from the fuel cell vehicle commercialization timetable. A few years back, Toyota executives were optimistic that they could develop a commercially feasible fuel cell vehicle by 2010-2015. By late 2004 and early 2005, the company executives (including its CEO) were pushing the commercialization timetable out towards 2020-2025. That's a five to ten year difference however you look at it.

While Toyota emphasizes the technological challenges ahead of fuel cell systems, the company also weighs the lack of hydrogen refueling stations into its strategy. The automaker, in ABI Research's opinion, also strongly believes that its hybrid technology will succeed across a variety of its vehicle platforms, from SUVs to trucks. Since the company already has the edge on almost all of its competitors (arguably except Honda) in hybrid technology, it is only prudent to extend its technology lead into a commercial advantage in years to come. This will not slow the company's fuel cell technology R&D, as the company has plenty of financial muscle for technology development, but it will not put Toyota into the most aggressive position to secure fuel cell commercialization. However the company will enjoy leading status as it shapes further technological improvements and generates revenue by licensing its hybrid technology to competitors such as Ford and Nissan.

Elsewhere things are radically different, particularly at Toyota's most important competitor, General Motors. The company altered its strategy after Rich Wagoner became CEO, developing into one of the top auto companies to embrace fuel cell technology. It did not take too long for General Motors to claim that 2010 would be the year it would be in a position to manufacture 1 million fuel cell vehicles.

GM increased its funding and has reportedly poured more than US$1 billion into fuel cell R&D programs since 2000. Because the company did not consider hybrid technology to be commercially viable, its market success caught them seriously lagging (3 to 5 years optimistically) while Toyota was launching its hybrid vehicle, the Prius. The company then gave more priority to hybrid development, cooperating with DaimlerChrysler to launch its hybrid vehicle in 2007, ten years after Toyota launched the Prius.

Since GM lags Toyota in hybrid technology, which has become the world's number two auto company and aims to be number one before the decade is over, GM is pushing harder to make fuel cell technology commercial, in order to gain an advantage over its archrival and other competitors.

ABI Research does not think GM has the kind of technological edge over Toyota in fuel cell development that Toyota has over GM in hybrid technology. However, by giving fuel cell technology top priority, GM will be able to achieve fuel cell commercialization sooner, rather than later in Toyota's case. This is why we will be more likely to see GM taking a more active role in hydrogen infrastructure developments in the coming years, by working with governments across the world.

GM's latest fuel cell prototype, the Sequel, showed further progress over Hywire. The company tackles fuel cell commercialization in two separate strategies:

While the first strategy will radically change automotive manufacturing, the second will enable the company to launch commercial fuel cell vehicles in the next 10 years.

Major auto companies, automotive fuel cell companies, fuel cell material and component suppliers and energy companies that are active in hydrogen infrastructure developments are analyzed in an upcoming ABI Research Vendor Matrix Study: http://abiresearch.com/fcvprogram.jsp#HCP

The Fuel Cell Supply Chain & Hydrogen Infrastructure Developments

Both the fuel cell supply chain and hydrogen infrastructure are essential elements to automotive fuel cell commercialization. While companies such as 3M, BASF, Dow Chemicals, DuPont, Johnson Matthey and WL Gore will be significant companies in a future fuel cell supply chain, BP, ChevronTexaco and Shell have taken an early lead in opening up hydrogen fueling stations across the globe.

While fuel cell vehicle commercialization is going more slowly than expected, the big companies are certainly gearing themselves up for the longer haul. Certainly, not one company is making profits in very limited fuel cell related sales; however, collaboration with fuel cell system developers, automakers, and energy companies enables the suppliers to develop the materials and components in accordance with developers' demands.

Hydrogen infrastructure development needs to go into an accelerated phase in the second half of this decade. While governments have been cooperating with the industry, they must be more proactive in opening early fueling station centers in regional metropolitan cities.

ABI Research's latest hydrogen infrastructure study (http://www.abiresearch.com/reports/HYD.html) describes North America (The U.S. and Canada), western Europe and Japan as areas where early hydrogen fueling stations will most likely be built. The study forecasts the total number of fuel cell vehicles and fueling stations in certain metropolitan cities in these regions, and projects the total required capital investment for hydrogen infrastructure. China and India are also included in the study, as both countries are poised to start their own hydrogen/fuel cell development programs in the coming decade.

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