The Mystery Of The Disappearing Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

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An alarming new investigation of new registrations for fuel cell electric vehicles in Europe fell into the Intertubes last week with barely a ripple, though it’s not for lack of trying. “Hydrogen vehicle registrations are flatlining across most of Europe” was the headline, which sounds like a good way to get attention. However, so far there hasn’t been much in the way of follow-on news, leaving the situation a mystery wrapped in an enigma.

What Happened To The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles Of Europe?

Part of the mystery may lie in the fact that headlines by nature don’t include the fine print. The investigation was undertaken by the news organization Hydrogen Insight. Upon taking a deep dive into the details, they noted that the picture on fuel cell vehicles was a mixed bag.

“Data from every European country with at least one HRS [Hydrogen Refueling Station] shows that in all but three, registrations of FCEV have either crashed or stagnated,” Hydrogen Insight explained. They also noted that “registrations can include vehicles purchased by dealerships that have not yet been sold to a business or individual.”

Looking at Germany, the situation does seem dire. Germany is the biggest market for hydrogen cars in Europe, but on January 9, Hydrogen Insight reported that new fuel cell electric vehicle registrations in the country dropped almost 70% in 2023. Switzerland also turned in a dismal performance, registering just 28 cars and 10 commercial vehicles in 2023.

France was one of the bright spots, which is no surprise considering the country’s “Hydrogen Valley” fuel cell promotion program.

“France shows that the country is becoming one of the most dynamic FCEV markets in Europe — although hydrogen vehicle sales are still tiny compared to those of battery-electric equivalents — with the UK and Czechia the only other European nations to have seen more than ten FCEV registrations per HRS last year,” Hydrogen Insights noted.

Why Is This Happening?!?

Despite the bright spots of France, the UK, and Czechia, the Hydrogen Insights investigation paints a gloomy picture overall. The big question is why. The lack of an adequate fueling station network is commonly cited as one of the reasons for the slow pace of fuel cell electric vehicle sales, but reporter Rachel Parkes notes that some of the worst-performing countries on new registrations seem to have an adequate number of fuel stations.

If the lack of a reliable refueling infrastructure is not the problem, other factors could include relatively high costs and unfamiliarity with fuel cell technology. That’s a contrast with battery electric vehicles, which are quickly becoming familiar, ubiquitous, and less costly.

Hydrogen Insight does not venture to guess exactly what drove fuel cell electric vehicle registrations down last year, though the piece does suggest that potential buyers are waiting for bigger subsidies to kick in. Parkes notes that the Dutch government increased its subsidies in September, shortly after the cut-off date for gathering statistics for the investigation.

The financial script flips in the high-end car market, but fuel cell electric vehicles are still out in the cold. If you’re looking for a battery electric car with a fancy hood ornament, you can take your pick from startups like Lucid Air and legacy brands like the Porsche Taycan among many others. In contrast, availability in the fuel cell department is much more limited.

A New Hope For Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles

As for whether or not the overall downswing in European registrations is a matter of temporary circumstances or it signals a long term trend, that remains to be seen. On a sunnier note, the story of 2024 has yet to be written, and three important developments in the fuel cell space kicked off the year.

First, on January 27 we noted that Renault Group’s Hyvia fuel cell vehicle venture announced the delivery of 50 fuel cell vans to the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France. The initial goal is 400 light-duty and 80 heavy-duty fuel cell vehicles, for a total of about 1,000 vehicles over the coming years.

Second, as noted by Hydrogen Insight, Stellantis followed suit just two days later on January 29, announcing that it has expanded its lineup of fuel cell vans, with an initial focus on markets in France and Poland.

“Aimed at supporting intensive customer use, the fuel cell versions of the commercial vans build on the technology used in the zero- emission BEV variants of the vehicles, with the added advantages of short refueling times and no sacrifice of payload capability,” Stellantis noted in a press statement.

“For the mid-size vans, a second generation of the fuel cell system delivers a segment record range of up to 400 km and refueling time of less than four minutes. For the large vans, the addition of fuel cell technology brings range capability of up to 500 km and refueling time of just five minutes,” they added.

The expanded fuel cell lineup includes the Citroën ë-Jumpy and ë-Jumper, the Fiat Professional E-Scudo and E-Ducato, the Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro and Movano, and the Peugeot E-Expert and E-Boxer.

As for where the fuel is coming from, Stellantis has already nailed that down. “In 2023, Stellantis became an equal one-third shareholder in Symbio, a leading hydrogen technology company with operations in Europe and the United States,” they explained.

To be clear, Stellantis is not giving up its commitment to battery electric vehicle mobility. However, the company does note that hydrogen fuel cell technology “plays an important role in the Stellantis zero-emission propulsion roadmap.”

Here Come The Fuel Cell Vehicles

As if on cue, immediately after Stellantis announced its expanded fuel cell van lineup, the company reportedly sold 150 of the electric vehicles to the green hydrogen producer Hysata, a newly launched joint venture between Toyota and Air Liquide.

Meanwhile, a third significant development occurred over here in the US last week, when General Motors and Honda revved up operations at their FCSM 50-50 joint venture in Brownstown, Michigan, describing it as “the first large-scale manufacturing joint venture to build fuel cells.”

The new factory brings to fruit a fuel cell electric vehicle collaboration between the two companies that began in 2013. On the all-important cost-cutting side, GM anticipates that the new FCSM fuel cell systems will be about 66% less expensive relative to the one sported by the 2019 Honda Clarity fuel cell electric vehicle.

GM attributes the new benchmark to “lowering development and manufacturing costs by leveraging economies of scale, advancing the cell design, simplifying supporting auxiliary equipment, utilizing common sourcing, and reducing the use of costly precious metals.”

No word yet on exactly what kinds of electric vehicles will be in play. Stationary applications could make an appearance as well. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread.

Follow me @tinamcasey on Bluesky, Threads, Post, and LinkedIn.

Photo (cropped): Stellantis doubles down on its commitment to fuel cell electric vehicles with an expanded lineup of fuel cell vans for the European market (courtesy of Stellantis).

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