Several people have emailed me recently who want to buy a hydrogen car now, so I thought I would do a post on why we must wait a bit for this to happen. Bryan S. sent in this question regarding buying a hydrogen car, “Why is it these automakers will only ‘lease’ these hydrogen cars to people and not ‘sell’ them? It reminds me of the electric car (EC1) all over again.”
Hydro Kevin: Of course, I cannot speak for any one of the automakers, but I can take a few educated guesses as to why they are not offering hydrogen cars for sale instead of lease now.
First, the “chicken or egg” problem with the infrastructure means that if the automakers were to sell a few hundred hydrogen cars, there would be few public stations in which to fuel them. GM, Honda and BMW have to be mindful of handing out their hydrogen vehicles to people in certain zip code areas who live near a functioning public hydrogen station or else make some other temporary accommodations for them to refuel. California has the most refueling stations right now, but try driving across the Heartland and one will be sadly disappointed in the lack of stations.
Second, there would be very few buyers of hydrogen cars at current prices of somewhere between $100,000 and $500,000 or whatever the automakers would want to charge at this point in time. Prices, especially of fuel cell vehicles need to come down, and this will happen due to economy of scale when more vehicles are manufactured.
Third, as a lease, the automakers can continue testing the vehicles. They can continue to collect technical data from the vehicles as well as do market testing. The market testing would include collecting information on customer satisfaction, attitude toward hydrogen cars, etc. to help them market these vehicles on a broader scale in the future.
Fourth, and this is one of the most important points, is that if hydrogen cars are sold, the automakers need to support them nationwide. When a consumer purchases car from one of the major auto manufacturers right now, the assumption is that if the car breaks down, that can get it serviced at the dealer anywhere in the U. S. So, if you drive your car from Barstow, California to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, or from Corpus Christi, Texas, to Boise, Idaho, and something mechanical happens on your car, you can get it serviced at the dealer.
To sell 100 or 200 hydrogen cars to consumers, then needing to train thousands of mechanics nationwide on how to fix these cars, would be a major undertaking indeed. Before the Honda FCX Clarity is rolled out to under 100 consumers in the Los Angeles area this summer the company is building a special service center in the area that all cars will be brought from area dealerships for servicing. This could serve as a future model for the rollout of service areas and cut down on the sheer number of mechanics needing to be trained, but it will still be a major undertaking, nonetheless.
To sum up these four points, I think the major issue right now for the automakers is control. They wish to control how many vehicles are rolled out, in what locations, where the vehicles will be refueled, where they will be serviced, the price point they can get consumers to pay for a lease (if they are leasing them) and the power to end the lease and recall the vehicles if needed at any time.
Hopefully, hydrogen cars will be a smashing success rather than a smashing failure such as happened with the electric cars a few years back. But, you never know. If state regulators do not work with the automakers, we could see the same debacle happening again. Some wise man once said that history repeats itself because no one is listening. We’ll see who is listening this time.