Electric vehicles (EVs) have taken a commanding lead over fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) in the race to become mainstream in the global market for next-generation environmentally friendly forms of transport.
Last year, 22,000 EVs were sold in Japan, more than 10 times the 2,000 FCVs sold.
The gap is even larger in major overseas markets. In California, one of the most competitive markets for eco-friendly cars, EV sales are about 60 times larger than those of FCVs. In China, the ratio is more than 1,000 to one.
Both EVs and FCVs emit no carbon dioxide while the motors are running.
EVs need fast-charging stations, while vehicles powered by fuel cells, which combine hydrogen gas with oxygen to generate electricity, need hydrogen fueling stations.
The government has been subsidizing both types of facilities.
But building nationwide networks of both types would be costly and undermine the commercial viability of these infrastructure items for EVs and FCVs.
A policy decision to choose one over the other as the standard green car technology would lower costs through economies of scale for the benefit of consumers.
Sooner or later, the government will have to make the choice in light of market needs.
In past battles for the status as the global standard between rival technologies for such products as videocassettes and optical discs, the ones supported by more manufacturers than their competitors emerged victorious.
Most major global automakers have announced specific plans in recent years to develop and sell EVs.
Progress in efforts to tackle the key challenges of improving battery performance and cutting costs has gradually expanded the use of EV technology from high-end models to mass-market cars.
In contrast, FCV technology has failed to gain popularity.
Toyota Motor Corp., which became the world’s first company to start volume sales of FCVs in 2014, and Hyundai Motor Co. of South Korea, are about the only automakers that sell FCVs.
Cost reductions for FCVs have been far less impressive than for EVs.
After years of a serious quest to carve out a commercially viable future for FCVs, Honda Motor Co. pulled the plug on the project last year.
Now, the winner in the battle seems to be clear.
Still, the Japanese government is showing scant signs that it is ready to reconsider its program to promote FCV technology.
It has earmarked 15 billion yen ($130 million) under the fiscal 2022 budget to achieve its target of increasing the number of hydrogen stations to 320 in 2025. The amount represents a 4-billion-yen increase over the previous fiscal year.
The government expected cumulative domestic FCV sales to reach 40,000 units by the end of 2020. But only about 4,000 were sold. It does not make sense to stick to the original plan.
Although it has failed to gain competitiveness in the passenger car market, the future of FCV technology in the large commercial vehicle market offers room for hope.
In this market, the advantages of FCVs, including shorter refueling times and the easiness to ramp up horsepower, translate into substantial competitiveness.
Commercial vehicles that run on fixed routes require smaller numbers of hydrogen stations than passenger cars.
Setting up a hydrogen station costs 400 million yen. Cost efficiency should be a key consideration even for programs to reduce the nation’s carbon footprint.
The government needs to undertake a sweeping review of its subsidies program for hydrogen stations, focusing on such key factors as locations and the numbers of facilities to be built, after carefully evaluating the market and related plans of automakers.
–The Asahi Shimbun, March 3