Fuel cells are driving electric cars into dead end

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Reuters Tokyo and Detroit

ARE ELECTRIC cars running out of juice again?

Recent moves by Japan’s two largest car manufacturers suggest that the electric car, after more than 100 years of development and several brief revivals, still is not ready for prime time, and may never be.

In the meantime, the attention of motoring executives in Asia, Europe and North America is beginning to swing toward an unusual but promising new alternate power source: hydrogen.

The reality is that consumers continue to show little interest in electric vehicles (EVs), which dominated US streets in the first decade of the 20th century before being displaced by petrol-powered cars.

Despite the promise of “green” transportation, and despite billions of dollars in investment, most recently by Nissan, EVs continue to be plagued by many of the problems that eventually scuttled electrics in the 1910s and more recently in the 1990s. Those include high cost, short driving range and lack of charging stations.

The public’s lack of appetite for battery-powered cars persuaded US President Barack Obama’s administration to back away last week from its aggressive goal to put 1 million electric cars on US roads by 2015.

The tepid response to EVs also pushed Nissan chief executive Carlos Ghosn to announce in December a major strategic shift toward more mainstream petrol-electric hybrids, which overcome many of the shortcomings of pure EVs.

The move was widely seen as a tacit acknowledgement by Ghosn that his all-or-nothing, multibillion-dollar bet on EVs is falling far short of his ambition to sell hundreds of thousands of battery-powered Nissan Leafs.

Instead, Nissan plans to follow Toyota, the largest purveyor of hybrids, which is poised to skip pure EVs altogether to pursue what may be the next big green-tech breakthrough: pollution- and petrol-free fuel-cell cars that convert hydrogen to electricity.

Vice-chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada said he believed that fuel-cell vehicles held far more promise than battery electric cars. “Because of its shortcomings – driving range, cost and recharging time – the electric vehicle is not a viable replacement for most conventional cars. We need something entirely new.”

In the race to identify the Next Big Thing in motoring technology, the stakes are enormous.

Nissan, with French partner Renault, has committed $5 billion (R44.6bn) for development and manufacture of EVs and batteries. Toyota has spent an estimated $10bn or more over the past 16 years to develop, build and market an ever-expanding range of hybrids, led by the popular and now profitable Prius.


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