The ‘chicken or egg’ problem of hydrogen-fueled cars in New England

The Toyota Mirai made an appearance at the 2016 New England International Auto Show in January. After years of hints, are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles ready to hit the road?
The Toyota Mirai made an appearance at the 2016 New England International Auto Show in January. After years of hints, are hydrogen fuel cell vehicles ready to hit the road? –Olivia Spinale / Boston.com

If you attended the 2016 New England International Auto Show last month, you may have caught a glimpse of the Mirai, Toyota’s hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle.

This was not the Mirai’s first appearance in New England, however. It was featured at last year’s New England Auto Show as well.

So after two consecutive auto show appearances it seems fair to ask the question: Why aren’t there more hydrogen-powered cars on the road in Massachusetts?

According to the Massachusetts Offers Rebates for Electric Vehicles website, which also issues rebate for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, no rebates have been issued for a hydrogen-powered vehicle to date.

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Lack of hydrogen infrastructure is a significant roadblock to getting more hydrogen-powered vehicles on the road. After all, consumers are unlikely to want vehicles that run on hydrogen if there are no stations nearby to refuel them.

But according to the Massachusetts Hydrogen Coalition, a non-profit group committed to expanding hydrogen power in the Bay State, the region is making progress toward both hydrogen-powered vehicles and a system of refueling stations.

“By this time next year, I fully expect we will have a group of fully functional, operational hydrogen charging stations available,’’ said Mass. Hydrogen Coalition president Charles Myers to Boston.com in a phone interview.

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Green cars at the New England Auto Show

If you build them, they will come

Myers acknowledges hydrogen vehicles face a “chicken or the egg’’ situation.

Without an infrastructure in place to support them, the auto industry is hesitant to push its hydrogen-fueled cars. At the same time, without hydrogen vehicles available there is less demand to build supporting infrastructure.

But he believes that building the hydrogen stations are the first step to creating a market in Massachusetts.

“They will come first as long as the car industry provides the assurances that hydrogen cars will be there as soon as the stations are operational,’’ said Myers.

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Among the states, California has taken the lead in building an infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles. But even the Golden State has a limited number of stations. As of early 2016, there were only a handful of refueling stations in Southern California. Because of this lack of infrastructure, Toyota delayed deliveries of its Mirai vehicles.

Why hydrogen?

Myers points out that hydrogen-powered cars can offer motorists several advantages over other alternative fuel vehicles. For starters, they emit water vapor instead of gas fumes.

Second, consumers who have grown accustomed to refueling their gas tanks will not have to make adjustments when refueling a hydrogen-powered vehicle. Like their gasoline counterparts, hydrogen-powered vehicle can take roughly five minutes to refill. Meanwhile, electric battery vehicles can take 30 minutes or several hours to recharge, depending on the type of charger used.

Finally, they offer a greater range than most electric vehicles. For example, the Tesla Model S has outperformed other EVs on the market with a range over 230 miles. But the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle, which has been available to lease in part of California since 2014, offers a range of over 260 miles, and the Toyota Mirai boasts a range of 312 miles on a full tank.

In 2014, Boston.com took a hydrogen-powered Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell for a brief test drive around the Seaport District. The test model we drove offered strong acceleration and a very quiet ride.

Myers points out that Toyota partnered with French energy company Air Liquide to build a series of 12 hydrogen refueling stations across the Northeast. None of the stations are currently operational, but a spokesperson for Toyota confirmed for Boston.com that construction will begin in the next few months and that one of these stations will be built in Massachusetts. It is not clear where in the Bay State the hydrogen station will be constructed.

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Myers acknowledges that the Northeast region will need more than a dozen stations in order to help hydrogen cars get off the ground. But he believes the stations will be key to generating consumer interest.

“It will be enough to launch the market, it’s absolutely enough to do that,’’ said Myers. “But to sustain growth? Oh, no. We need significantly more stations than the initial twelve.’’

While the lack of infrastructure has delayed the arrival of hydrogen fuel cell technology, Myers anticipates the vehicles will offer a new alternative fuel option for eco-conscious consumers. Once that happens, he hopes the infrastructure will keep up.

“Once consumers see what these cars can do, the demand will outstrip the rate at which the infrastructure is being built,’’ he said.

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