“The momentum behind this in the last two to three years is greater than anything I’ve seen in the previous 20,” said Craig Scott, fuel cell solutions group manager at Toyota Motor North America.
Indeed, U.S. sales of fuel cell electric vehicles are growing fast but from a tiny base. Sales of the Mirai, the hydrogen sales leader, surged to 2,629 in 2021, up from 499 in 2020. Nexo deliveries jumped 107 percent to 430.
The Mirai, however, has failed to maintain that momentum: Sales fell 15 percent to 1,358 in the first half of this year compared with the same period in 2021. Nexo sales more than doubled to 271 during the same period.
But fuel cell sales are almost an immeasurable percentage of all new-vehicle volume. The total U.S. new-vehicle market topped 15 million in 2021, according to the Automotive News Research & Data Center. Sales of fuel cell vehicles totaled just 3,059 last year. The figures don’t include the Honda Clarity, which was sold in hybrid, electric and fuel cell configurations and was discontinued.
Even when compared with battery-electric vehicles, the fuel cell market is minuscule. In the first half of 2022, Tesla registered about 229,000 BEVs in the U.S., according to data from Experian. Other automakers recorded 109,620 more BEV sales. First-half fuel cell sales, again excluding the Clarity, stood at 1,629, according to the Data Center.
Industry investment reflects that disparity. Fuel cell technology spending will make up only a small portion of the $526 billion AlixPartners estimates the industry will invest in BEVs over the next five years, said Arun Kumar, a managing director at the consulting firm.
For the fuel cell market to grow to meaningful volume, experts say the industry must address significant questions: Can more green sources of hydrogen be developed? Will the fledgling hydrogen fueling infrastructure grow large enough to satisfy consumers and fleets? And what will fuel cell vehicles offer potential buyers that BEVs cannot?
With its modular fuel cell stack system that works in vehicles ranging from passenger cars to heavy-duty commercial trucks, Toyota is betting hydrogen has a vital transportation role.
“When you look at two-vehicle households, there will be one that’s a BEV and one that’s a fuel cell,” Scott said.
He said the fuel cell car will allow people to take longer journeys free of range anxiety because they will be able to quickly refill their hydrogen tanks. That will free them of the charging delays of BEVs.