Will Fuel Cell Cars Be A Hard Sell?

Ballard's Dennis Campbell sees a 'perfect storm' forming that will propel the world towards hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Published: 01-Jun-2005

Is the world at the tipping point of saying yea or nay to a hydrogen economy, at least, for transportation? What trend or world event will force the tipping point? The crystal ball remains fuzzy.

Ford and General Motors are in dire financial straits. Credit rating agencies saw the automakers' plights as so desperate they cut their credit ratings to junk status, which means it is far more expensive for them to borrow money.

At the same time, both companies are developing hydrogen-powered vehicles, and spending billions to do so. An insider at one company said there's a raging debate about whether the automaker should be spending those billions on technologies that appear to be far in the future. The debate centers around whether those billions should be cut to save money (and maybe the future of the company), or reallocate those billions to new products that will keep the company afloat in the short run.

Dennis Campbell, chief executive of a premier company in developing fuel cells, Ballard Power Systems Inc., based in Vancouver, British Columbia, thinks we're approaching the tipping point toward a hydrogen economy.

Campbell was in Detroit recently to talk to the Automotive Press Association, an organization of automotive media and public relations people, about the company's progress in developing fuel cells, devices that use hydrogen to generate electricity to propel vehicles and emit only water vapor. Most major automakers have active hydrogen fuel-cell programs; eight of the world's top ones use Ballard's technology.

Campbell sees a perfect storm developing on the world stage. Trends contributing to that storm include: a rising demand for petroleum, with significantly higher demands from emerging markets such as China and India; higher gas prices as a result of increased demand; the expected hike in the number of vehicles on the planet, especially in emerging markets; a shaky geopolitical situation in the Middle East; and alarming indications of global warming reaching a point of no return, as well as air pollution in general.

Further, Japan, which has to import all of its oil, has a very active fuel-cell program that will have homes powered by fuel cells. And Japan has even mandated 50,000 fuel-cell vehicles on its roads by 2010. Honda and Toyota have substantial fuel-cell programs. China could be the wild card since it also imports virtually all of its petroleum and is considering a hydrogen economy.

Experts such as Campbell and Larry Burns, General Motors vice president of research and development and strategic planning, think China, in fact, could be the tipping point. China, they note, has shown an inclination to skip steps of technology. For instance, China went from no phones to cell phones. The driving force behind a move to a hydrogen economy in China will not be pollution, which is a major problem there, but economics and geopolitical forces, Burns says. "There will be events like 9/11, the Iraq war and the blackouts in the Northeast that will increase the urgency to find alternatives," he says.

He points out that by 2020, 1.1 billion cars and trucks will be on the world's roads, up from about 750 million today. "Park them end to end, they would wrap around the planet 125 times," Burns says.

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