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FCA’s Hyundai hydrogen solution

by Chris Vander Doelen on

Only a few weeks ago, analysts were wondering how Fiat Chrysler could possibly catch up to rest of the industry on electric vehicles, while CEO Sergio Marchionne bemoaned how bad EVs are for the environment, given their cradle-to-grave CO2 emissions.

We got a clue this weekend as to why Marchionne has been running down EVs: the company still thinks hydrogen fuel cells might be the  way to go. Marchionne has been saying so for years, but now they’ve lined up a partnership with hydrogen pioneer Hyundai to help provide them.

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“We already buy components from Hyundai,” Marchionne said in Italy, as reported by Reuters and others. “Let’s see if we can agree on other points, especially for the development of transmissions and hydrogen.”

His remarks set off an immediate mini-storm of speculation on a merger with Hyundai that the FCA CEO had to quash, for the umpteenth time. Marchionne described the deal with Hyundai as a technical partnership, nothing more.

Hyundai has made large investments in fuel cell research and is considered one of the leaders in the field. It says it will have a 500-mile hydrogen-powered SUV out by 2019.

DaimlerChrysler had made major investments in fuel cell research, in 2002 producing an experimental Natrium minivan that extracted hydrogen from solid borax. Aside from a lot of weird hums and clicks from under the floorboards, it drove normally when I had the chance for a brief test on a pier in New York City.

It was the company’s third-generation fuel cell at the time,  and work was presumed to have ended. Although after last week’s electric Jeep surprise, one never knows.

2002 Chrysler Natrium

FCA’s recent announcement of a Jeep Wrangler plug-in EV  coming in 2020 surprised and pleased observers who worry Marchionne has painted the company into something of an non-electrification corner (even though it was shown on an investor-report product map some time ago).

On paper, avoiding CO2 emissions by burning hydrogen has a major advantages over using batteries: it doesn’t take hours to fuel up. Fuel cells emit nothing but water.

The down side is that there are only a handful of hydrogen fueling stations in North America. Meanwhile, there are already more than 22,000 public charging stations for EVs in the U.S. and Canada, with thousands more on the way. And most EV owners charge their vehicles at home anyway – something that would be out of the question for a fuel cell vehicle at this point.

Still, many automotive futurists see hydrogen as the ultimate solution to getting the carbon out of mobility, with EVs as a temporary stopgap — which is pretty much what Marchionne has been saying all along.

Chris Vander Doelen was Opinion Editor and columnist of The Windsor Star until December, 2016; he was the Star's automotive reporter and columnist for seven years, and had also covered the political and gambling beats. With his wife, Veronique Mandal, he wrote the book Chasing Lightning (1999). Chris won a National Newspaper Award in 1997 and more than a dozen provincial news awards. There is a Chrysler 300 in his driveway.

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