Hydrogen fuel cell car sales to hit a few millions … in 2030

Fuel cell cars — that rare breed that aims to be a great zero-carbon ride of the future — are making more noises lately as part of a countdown to their arrival as a feasible option in the showrooms. Although fewer than 500 fuel cell cars were sold in the past two years, 1,000 of them will likely be sold in 2015 and over 2 million per year by 2030, said Navigant Consulting this week.

At 2 million, the volume will remain a tiny fraction of the global car sales, which topped 82 million units in 2012. But fuel cell technology continues to fascinate people, and not just those who want it for its environmental benefits. A fuel cell has a similar setup as a battery, but it uses hydrogen as the fuel. The catalyst in the fuel cell splits the hydrogen into protons and electrons, which get harvested. It produces water vapor as the tailpipe emission.

Several major carmakers, such as Ford and Nissan, plan to start selling hydrogen fuel cell cars within five years. Developing cars that run on a new fuel takes a lot of money, and automakers are under pressure in places such as California to roll out zero-emission cars to achieve emission reduction mandates. As a result, carmakers have been banding together to pool their resources to speed up the development process. Ford, Renault-Nissan, and Daimler announced their partnership in January this year. BMW is licensing Toyota’s fuel cell technology.

The cost of building a fuel cell should fall more quickly if carmakers roll out their models around the same time and market them to raise the consumer awareness. Toyota executive said earlier this year that a fuel cell car cost about $1 million each to make a few years ago, but the company expects that cost to drop to around $50,000 by 2015. That would price the car at under $100,000.

The price tag wouldn’t be affordable for the masses, but it would help to chart a course for lowering the price year after year from then on. Tesla Motors priced its very first electric car, a Roadster, around $100,000. Even though its second and third models are priced at between $50,000 and $100,000, Tesla has talked about a plan to sell a $30,000 car in the future.

Understandably, launching a new breed of cars will require a new fueling network, which will come with all sorts of technical, manufacturing, marketing and public education challenges that we have seen with the roll out of electric vehicles by major car makers. Electric car startup Fisker Automotive is dying and waiting to be rescued while Coda Automotive filed for bankruptcy. Better Place just filed court papers to liquidate after raising over $850 million to build and run battery swapping and charging stations. Public electric car charging stations that have cropped up in recent years have been built largely with hefty government subsidies. So you can expect the fuel cell car market to be littered with failed technologies and companies, too

Even though California is ahead of other states in supporting fuel cell development and launch, it has yet to see many hydrogen cars on the roadways. Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 set a lofty — and unmet — goal of building a “hydrogen highway” so that every Californian will have access to a hydrogen fueling station along major highways by 2010. The state now has nine hydrogen stations open to the public that serve about 200 cars, reported Reuters.