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Tesla's Supercharger network is the template for the hydrogen era -Cars Automobiles

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A Tesla charging station in California. Picture credits: RICHARD TRUETT

Elon Musk has taken his share of hits in the media for his Twitter rumors and his behavior, which is just funny for a CEO. We do not know how Tesla Inc. will fare now that the competition from Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes is here or will be soon.

If Tesla can not make it because of mismanagement and misconduct by Musk, and if the company goes down in flames like DeLorean, Bricklin and Tucker, there is at least one Musk legacy that is undeniably brilliant: Tesla's nationwide network of Supercharger charging stations.

Tesla's supercharger network, I think, is the blueprint for automakers preparing to launch fuel cell vehicles. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and General Motors are at the cutting edge of fuel cell technology. Some vehicles are already available for leasing and new, more efficient fuel cell stacks – the component that generates electricity from gaseous hydrogen – are on their way.

Musk answered the question "chicken and egg" with electric vehicles and invested more than $ 1 billion in a nationwide charging system designed specifically for Tesla cars. He has the driver's biggest fear of being EV scared.

The same strategy will be necessary for fuel cell vehicles to be very attractive. Fuel cells are, as you will recall, electric vehicles. But instead of storing electricity in a battery pack that weighs hundreds of pounds, electricity is generated from gaseous hydrogen stored under high pressure in the vehicle. A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle such as a gasoline or diesel vehicle can be refilled in minutes, and the short time to refill the hydrogen tank is one of the major advantages that fuel cell vehicles have over battery-powered electric vehicles.

California tops the nation in the number of fuel cell stations, many of which were built by FirstElement Fuel Inc., a company led by Joel Ewanick, an automotive veteran. He agrees that a Tesla-like nationwide network of hydrogen refueling stations could help reduce the time it takes for fuel cell vehicles to be economically produced.

"All automakers are trying to find a way [production of] 30,000 cars. Here you can see real efficiency in your production, your parts and your suppliers. All under it is a challenge to make these cars for a reasonable price. We will reach this turning point in 2020 and 2021, "said Ewanick.


A Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell vehicle will be fueled with hydrogen on July 8, 2011 at a Shell gas station in Torrance, California. Picture credits: BLOOMBERG

But he also recognizes that automakers want to build cars, not fueling infrastructure. And yet they may not have a choice if they want to sell hydrogen fuel cell vehicles nationwide. Toyota and Honda have so far raised more than $ 20 million to help FirstElement build 19 out of 31 planned hydrogen refueling points in California.

Ewanick says costs are dropping – between $ 2.2 million and $ 2.5 million per station – as the number of vehicles each station can handle increases. He finally sees the company expanding beyond California, perhaps by building a hydrogen refueling station "bridge" across the country.

"We do not need the network we have at gas stations," he said. "All we have to do is make sure they (hydrogen refueling stations) are in the right places to serve our customers."

The federal government under the Trump government is unlikely to do much to create a nationwide hydrogen-fuel network, so it could be a project for automakers and refineries like Shell – which installs hydrogen pumps at some California stations – and GM.

GM should take the lead by creating a unit that brings together suppliers of hydrogen fueling systems, companies like FirstElement, which build the stations, refineries that produce hydrogen, and other automakers to quickly and quickly finance hydrogen stations in every major market equip.

GM and Honda have reduced the size and cost of the fuel cell stack, and the electronics have proven themselves. Cars with hydrogen fuel will be part of the mix. The question now is what automakers will do to sow the technology and overcome customers' doubts and fears about reach. For this answer they only need to look at Tesla's Supercharger network. This is how you introduce vehicles with alternative fuels in a market.

"As I've heard all my career, automakers make cars and they do not do infrastructure," said Ewanick. "They do not want to be in the business of building gas stations and roads and bridges, their job is to build cars and do a really good job."

If that does not change, fuel cells may stay in the smallest niches.

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