In the summer of 2014, Shelly Bennecke, a 38-year-old company executive from Laguna Beach, California, swapped her BMW 5 Series sedan for a Hyundai Tucson hydrogen car.
“I realised that I needed to start thinking about emissions and the environment,” says Bennecke, a keen triathlon competitor who wanted a sports utility vehicle big enough for her bikes and surfboards.
Bennecke is one of only a few thousand motorists driving hydrogen fuel-cell cars today. But after years of false starts, their number could rise dramatically, with support from governments, car manufacturers and a network of refuelling stations.
Car makers in particular, including Korea’s Hyundai and Japan’s Toyota, are starting to make inroads into the market.
Toyota , for example, launched its first commercial hydrogen car, called the Mirai, or “the future”, in Japan at the end of 2014 and already has a waiting list of between three and four years there, according to Craig Scott, national manager for advanced technologies at Toyota USA in Los Angeles. The company will launch the car in the USA and Europe in 2015 and expects to sell around 3,000 within the next three years in the USA alone, Scott adds.
Prices are moving within the reach of more motorists. In the USA, the cost of a hydrogen-fuelled car is now less than $60,000.
Proponents of hydrogen say that fuel-cell vehicles have the edge over battery electric cars in a world of low emissions because they perform in almost the same way as petrol and diesel cars. Except that only clean water comes out of the tailpipe.
“In terms of performance, acceleration and comfort, hydrogen cars are comparable with conventional cars,” says Dr Wolfgang Warnecke, Shell Chief Scientist for Mobility. He often drives a pre-production fuel-cell Mercedes-Benz B-Class that is on loan to Shell. He estimates that he can drive around 350 kilometres on a tank of hydrogen or around 250km if he’s driving at higher speeds on the motorway.