Honda continues to bet on hydrogen fuel cells

Evidence of plunging sales even in its home Japanese market does not seem to deter the automaker

Honda continues to bet on hydrogen fuel cells
Honda has developed an FCEV variant of its new compact SUV the CR-V

Japan's Honda will display a prototype of its new hydrogen fuel cell at European Hydrogen Week in Brussels this week, as the firm continues to bet on wider FCEV penetration of the passenger vehicle market, despite evidence of falling sales.

Honda says it is currently working with a number of companies to integrate the fuel cell system into different applications in anticipation of commercial sales commencing by the mid-2020s.

The firm sees fuel cell electric passenger vehicles, heavy-duty commercial vehicles, construction machinery and stationary power generation as potential markets for the technology.

“After over 30 years at the forefront of hydrogen fuel cell development, we believe demand for the technology will soon reach the critical mass required for full commercial deployment,” says Ingo Nyhues, deputy general manager of Europe business planning & development at Honda Motor Europe.

Honda offers a range of passenger FCEVs for sale in Japan and the US and has developed an FCEV variant of its new compact SUV the CR-V, which will go on sale in the same regions next year.

But the limited availability of models and lack of infrastructure are hampering the development of the passenger FCEV sector, according to South Korea-based analyst SNE Research. 

While the BEV market continues to expand, the total number of globally registered FCEVs sold between January and September 2023 was 11,290 units, a 21.3pc fall year-on-year, the latest figures from the analyst show.

“The global EV market has seen a continuous increase in penetration rate,” says the SNE report. “On the other hand, the FCEV market continued to record year-on-year degrowths, failing to meet growth expectations due to the limited availability of FCEV models and shortage of hydrogen charging infrastructure.”

Only two FCEV passenger cars are in serial production today — Toyota’s Mirai and Hyundai’s Nexo. Hyundai saw sales of the Nexo down nearly 50pc to 4,320 units in the first three quarters of 2023.

But it is not just east Asian OEMs that retain enthusiasm for the potential of FCEVs as a passenger vehicle solution. "Our world is multifaceted and that is why we need different technological solutions," BMW board chairman Oliver Zipse said at the German automaker's Q3 results.

"To decarbonise, China relies on pure electric vehicles, but also on plug-in hybrids and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. In Beijing, for example, a large number of taxis already run on hydrogen," Zipse continues.

According to SNE, Chinese FCEV sales in Q1-3 '23 did grow by almost 18pc year-on-year. But, at c.3,500, they were still averaging less than 400 vehicles sold per month.

"Japan recognised the importance of hydrogen earlier on. This is why our BMW iX5 hydrogen pilot vehicle has been well received there," Zipse says. According to SNE, Japanese FCEV sales in the first nine months of the year plunged by almost 60pc to just 285.

And earlier in the year consultancy Bloomberg New Energy Finance’s (BNEF) Electric Vehicle Outlook warned it was hard to form a long-term outlook for passenger FCEVs with sales in the sector so low. 

FCEVs represented just 0.02pc of global passenger vehicle sales in 2022, with 15,391 units sold. This compared to 10.5mn battery electric vehicles, according to BNEF.

Truck potential

However many OEMs are still confident that the technology might gain more penetration in the heavy duty commercial transport sector – where its potentially better energy density and range than BEV technology could offer advantages. 

Earlier this year, Honda Motor and Isuzu Motors began the joint testing and development of an FCEV heavy duty truck.  

The two companies plan to start testing a prototype of the truck before the end of the current fiscal year and want to introduce a commercial model to the market from 2027.

Other truck makers such as Iveco and Hyundai Motors are all also developing FCEV heavy-duty trucks.

And France's Renault will be showing off its hydrogen-powered Renault Master H2-TECH van at European Hydrogen Week.

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