Saturday, October 19, 2013

The "H2**" With Fuel Cells!

Toyota is still the runaway leader in the hybrid industry which means they have the technical chops to handle most challenges so why have they not produced a mass market EV?

The RAV 4 EV has been very successful. The raw numbers are not impressive until we see how many buyers are not in the RAV's distribution area. ("California Special" personified here!) It really says a lot when you see this many people taking a risk (although probably small) and the additional expense (to ship the car to their home) to buy a car where official service center support could be thousands of miles away.

In a recent announcement Toyota said they will be putting out a 2015 mid-size SUV Fuel Cell car that will get 68.3 miles per Kilogram of H2. Now according to the article (check this because the article kinda sucks imm. More on my reasoning below.) a Kilogram (Kg) of Hydrogen is "roughly" equivalent to a gallon of gas. The hybrid version of this car (seems only the Prius on its coveted hybrid platform is the only one who gets a new design...) which is a Highlander only get 26 MPG so this Fuel Cell Version is much more efficient with the energy it uses  (Kinda like an EV right?) and its a much bigger car than even the Prius V.  So on paper it really seems like Toyota has really improved the performance of the fuel cell car but there begs the question; If you provide the car, who is going to provide the massive amounts of cash to provide the fuel? How will Toyota deal with the other challenges associated with bringing new technology to the market?

In a nutshell, new technology must address cost to market, fuel delivery, TCO, customer user experience and the aura of new vehicle ownership. Its these issues that still haunt EVs but if we take the 3 main technologies and examine them, is there a case to move full force on Hydrogen?

Cost to Market; Gas wins pretty easily. After all, the auto manufacturers have had a lot of practice ever since Henry Ford figured out how to turn Black into Green. (backs)  EVs still have issues with battery pricing but that is improving daily, or is it? Let me put it another way; news stories claiming a breakthru that will some day make batteries cheaper are published daily. The rest remains to be seen. But we can all agree that price will come down and one major breakthru will likely cause a very large drop in the price.  Then we have fuel cells. Well, I have to say I dont know enough about them to comment.  They are very new so have to guess that volume will lower the prices eventually. Now Toyota is claiming $50,000 which seems conveniently priced considering the cost of the a Tesla and since no other EVs are projected to have longer ranges yet, price comparisons on that end cant be made.

Fuel Delivery; Gas stations are in a crisis right now and the weird thing about it is that hardly anyone knows or cares about it.  The number of gas stations in the US has dropped dramatically over the past 15 years but has it really impacted anyone's ability to fill up?  Sure we all have stories about "Old Ben" (true story!) who owned the convenience store/gas station on the corner who opted for early retirement simply because he could not afford to keep up with the newer safety requirements for gasoline storage and containment. We all thought he got screwed and wondered why the State could think so little of the 30 years of service he had provided to our community but at the same time, leaks had been happening all over the state and even though his location didnt have any, it was put in the extra precautions or stop selling gas. Either way, it was simply go to the next station down the street (or more likely ACROSS the street) and fill up.

EVs are a different story. We have a half billion places to plug in and electricity is easy to come by but in little chunks and that is fine for the most part. My LEAF covers more than 95% of my needs and that is where public charging comes in because it allows me to eat into that 5%.   But now the question becomes "When is it simply cool to plug in and when does it become an inconvenience?   Fueling up is a fact of life. Now we can look at these as inconveniences or grin and bear it.  My gas stop at Costco on October 16th is not typical or out of the ordinary. I get there and its busy. I love Costco because its cheap and they have a lot of pumps with long hoses so even though my filler tube is on the left, I can use either side of the pumps. But all this is well known and despite my only getting gas during what I consider slack periods, every once in a while, I hit a crowd which was the case the other day. So it was a 17 minute gas detour (average is only about 7-8) which would have been no big deal and quickly forgotten as flotsam in daily routine of Life except I was in a time crunch (Murphy's Law got me!) so blaming the gas station, gas cars and whoever else was preferable to accepting the fact that I was lax on my "15 minutes early is on time" rule.

But public charging has struggled. Its placement has been inconvenient, sparse, and overall a bit strange.  Part of the problem is public perception has been inconsistent, business acceptance has been weak and governmental support has been poorly implemented at the local level. Now if I had a 250 mile Tesla S 85, I might feel differently but I dont (along with the $90,000 to get one) and I am betting neither do you so in an 80 mile LEAF how far is too far out of the way?  My office is on 56th and Tacoma Mall Blvd. Its very freeway convenient along with the Fife fast charge station at Tahoma Market but its 8.1 miles away in the opposite direction of home. For trips north, its very nice but that is about it. So my options are to use the much slower 240 volt options which are plentiful and several can be found while traveling in the general direction of home.  It is a combination of the latter along with driving slower that I have used.  So fast charging really needs to ratchet up its installs but that costs money and its money the government is not very willing to give up nor is any host hopping to volunteer either.

So will Hydrogen filling stations have an easier time finding acceptable places to operate?  They will definitely be much more expensive. Their safety and containment regulations will be massive. The areas they will be allowed to operate; limited. But then again, this is something the Oil Industry could easily Segway into so it will have governmental support anyway. The government might be "of the people, for the people, by the people" but its still owned by Big Money and we aint got that kind of cash so its got to be someone else.  Like batteries, Hydrogen storage and delivery needs a technological breakthru to be truly viable in the mind of the masses (EVs actually work for most but they just dont know it yet...) so maybe Toyota knows something no one else does?

TCO; Finally an area where EVs are undisputed leaders! Gas cars are pretty much guaranteed to have a $2500 annual fuel bill (at least for me) that quickly makes that nice purchase price not so nice and that is the beginning. They have become MUCH more complex that the DIY'er can no longer handle 90% of the maintenance needs like the old days. EVs have very little maintenance costs and 90% of the its fuel can be had dirt cheap or free (yes Aeroenvironment is STILL FREE!) but even if paying for public charging, its still a bargain if the location of the station is not too inconvenient.

Now, the cost to maintain a fuel cell car is to be discovered.  So everything I say here is just a guess. If we go back to the article referenced above (as much as I hate to) they surmise a fuel price of $9 /Kg of H2. which is the "mileage equivalent of $3.50 in gas using a "new math" I guess... So actual fuel prices are not to be known but what can be easily accepted is that for at least a few years (I am guessing more like 10) a fuel cell vehicle will have to go out of its way to refuel. Still guessing here but I can see the "lucky ones" only having to go 10 miles out of their way to get refueled which means their range is reduced by that length. These stations will be located near population centers (assuming someone does not object and spin it thru the court system for a few decades) but it will most likely be a significant chunk of time.  I measured how much time it took to get gas and did not consider the time at the station.  I only tracked when I left my commute and how long it took to get back to my commute.  During rush hour it was over 10 minutes if the lights were not kind and this detour was about 200 yards.  So 10 miles in heavy traffic TWO ways could easily grow into 30 minutes or more. FYI; I predict Hydrogen will come in at a MUCH higher price.

We also have to look at maintenance. No real guesses on that other than in my experience, any tank that holds pressurized gas has to have the seals on the valves replaced on a regular basis. I can easily see this as DIY type of thing so will negate that.

Customer User Experience; Dont know many people who feel good about driving their gassers. We accept the fact that they are transportation and that is that. Sure there are Vette Owners, Monster Trucks, etc... but all those loves has nothing to do with how the car gets down the road.

EVs are different. Quiet, smooth, clean and COOL!  But Fuel Cells have all that too... at least I have to think they will. Now, I know a lot of people who would not own a car the size of a Highlander for any reason.  Its simply too big a car. Now, tooling down the freeway is no big deal but in my experience as a driver for work (Yes, I still use the LEAF most of the time but do use the company car if needed) carrying 4 or more passengers that a large vehicle really really really SUCKS sometimes.  Seattle is not known for being car friendly in certain parts of town so maneuvering a 10 passenger Van can be a real pain sometimes so small is good. The LEAF is small enough to be very maneuverable. The Tesla S does have a bit of a knock as being more car than people prefer (although I could learn to live with it should someone be so kind to send one my way!!)

Fuel Cells are going to be different. You have to have a platform that can hide those tanks PLUS you still need batteries. The fuel cell is limited on how much power it can supply so the batteries are used as a buffer.  So the big question is; What is the smallest platform a fuel cell car can be and will that small platform still be able to maintain a decent range of at least 250 miles AND have passenger/storage space?  And will that platform be small enough to be accepted by the masses since initially, the car will be marketed more as a commuter than a family trip vehicle?

Now, EVs have their drawbacks so don't get me wrong. Due to limited range, public charging is the only way I can make my EV work for me but travel all over Western WA (and beyond) is part of the job  and its lucrative. I am reimbursed for miles I travel in my POV (rates vary based on gas prices but is currently 39 cents a mile and was as high as 46 cents a mile earlier this year) which provides me $400-600 a month tax free. Considering that my cost is about 2.4 cents a mile for home charging, I find little to complain about here.  Now if I had a normal job (which would not be good for me as I am an abnormal person!) and my transportation needs were to the office and back, no problem. Its a 46 mile round trip that my LEAF could handle for probably another 3-5 years with home charging only.

Examining my time at public chargers, I find that I am productive and rarely is the time spent that was inconvenient but that has not always been the case. I have had a few times where stops were required and had to wait for a charger which I did not plan for.  Broken chargers used to be an issue but no longer so much any more. But in all cases, I had planned the time to use the chargers and sometimes it required me to get up an hour earlier which could be a hassle but I frequently had work or socializing that needed to be done (yes, Facebook is a need for me and I am not ready to ask for help yet!) so I made the time less inconvenient.  But most chargers are self serve, 24 hours a day operations. Will fuel stations be so convenient? I think they will be eventually but considering the possible hazards I wonder if 24/7 access by the general public would be an option. Something as simply as plugging in a car has proven to be a bit beyond the comprehension of many. Damages to plugs by mishandling and misdirection (people who choose to not read directions) has happened on a much higher frequency than I would have guessed.  But the inconvenience I have refueling has only happened twice in the last 30 days which is not bad considering the 14 public charging events. Keep in mind that I have concentrated on not using public charging ever since the Blink $5 fast charge decision. (Aug 22nd in our area)

Aura; For lack of a better term. EVs are dripping in it. They are the cool new kids on the block and owners are literally gushing over their rides. (unless you live in Arizona... :( )  I will admit to hoping to run into other EV'ers at charging stations so I can gush in public over my LEAF and allow them to gush back but Fuel cells could also have that allure.  But with the 10 (ya TEN, with 9 in CA, 7 in Southern CA) current Hydrogen refueling options, it looks to be a small circle of people that fuel cell drivers will be able to shine their aura on, for now anyways.

So is Toyota making the right move by pushing H2 over EVs?  Well, actually I think this is simply Toyota being different. They were snubbed by the Big 3 back in the 90's when the Clinton Administration strong-armed the Big 3 to develop family sized cars that would get 80 MPG. Toyota got wind of this and wanted to participate and was rejected so they started their own development program and the Prius was born. The Big 3 were successful in developing the prototypes but then Gore lost the election and Bush decided fuel cells were a better idea and so here we are.  So I think that Toyota's Highlander FCEV is another compliance car to satisfy California.

So is fuel cells a bad thing? No, it definitely should be pursued because it does allow very large platform vehicles a valid way to travel. Semi's have the room to incorporate the very large tanks and batteries and do need a much faster refueling method. So even if the refueling stations were scattered around, a truck with an extended range could still handle it. So its something that should be strived for, but at the expense of EVs?? Cmon Toyota, pull your head out!

P.S.  If anyone has some insight or knowledge to some of the questions I have raises about FCEVs, please respond!

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