Hybrid vehicles are now commonplace on American roads and electric vehicles are gaining popularity, but hydrogen fuel cell vehicles lag behind. Honda and General Motors are taking a gamble on the future and partnering to invest big money in hydrogen fuel cell technology.
The plan is to mass produce a system both companies will use in upcoming vehicles. The project will operate through a newly-created company called Fuel Cell System Manufacturing, LLC and will be located within GM’s existing battery facility in Brownstown, Michigan.
This is no small endeavor. Honda and General Motors will each invest $42.5 million into the project. The goal is to have production rolling by 2020 creating new hydrogen fuel cells and around 100 new jobs.
The news came right after the Michigan Economic Development Corporation awarded the project $2 million based on an expected 64 new jobs in Brownstown alone. The economic impact of the new project will extend further and isn’t solely about cars.
Of course, for Honda and General Motors, making hydrogen fuel cells for vehicles is important, but the possible applications are much greater. According to GM executive vice president and global product chief Mark Reuss, “We have not announced any retail fuel cell vehicle plans. I would encourage you to think outside of the auto industry…because a fuel cell can be used in many different applications, including aerospace, military — all of those types of things.”
Honda started selling its Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in the United States last December following a launch in Japan last spring. That fuel cell is made in very limited volumes in Tochigi, Japan. As the Brownstown facility ramps up, Honda plans to phase out production in Tochigi.
That doesn’t cut Tochigi completely out of the picture, yet. The engineers involved in developing this new fuel cell will include teams from GM’s research center in Pontiac, Michigan and Honda’s Tochigi tech center. It’s an expansive project.
Production of hydrogen fuel cells is expensive, with manufacturing requiring tight controls similar to what you’d find in a clean room. Sharing the cost makes the whole process more affordable.
Neither company has revealed how much the new fuel cells will improve on what exists today. They’ve said it will be about the same size as a 1.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, but power output is still a mystery.
The biggest challenge might not be the technology, but getting people to accept the whole idea. If companies can produce something that offers improved performance with an affordable price, then that’s a good first step. It will need to be quickly followed by a solid infrastructure, which is also lacking, or people will resist. Honda and General Motors are betting it will all come together and make their efforts worthwhile.