Audi and Lexus Enter the Hydrogen Fuel Cell Race

Scott Olson Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Anyone who thinks hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a passing fancy heard a clear rebuttal at the 2016 Detroit Auto Show. While GM showed off its battery-electric Bolt EV and Chrysler presented the first plug-in hybrid minivan in the Motor City spectacle, two of the world’s top luxury brands showed they are going all-in with hydrogen-powered cars. The dashing Lexus LF-FC and Audi h-tron quattro concept represent the potential future of high-end fuel cell vehicles.

In the case of Lexus, the brand was presenting a car that had already made its world premiere at the Tokyo Motor Show in October. Akio Toyoda, the company’s chief branding officer, told the Detroit audience that the car’s North American debut should be seen as a teaser for the first Lexus fuel-cell vehicle arriving around 2020.

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Source: Lexus

Featuring gorgeous styling from any angle, the LF-FC is one of the most dazzling Lexus models we have ever seen, and the automaker will need it to deliver on the zero-emissions front as regulations get stricter around the world. Toyota as an automotive group saw the fork in the road between battery EVs and fuel-cell electric cars years ago, and it went the way of the hydrogen without looking back.

With the Mirai now selling in limited release down in Southern California, Toyota has skin in the game. By the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, this technology will be a major part of the company’s direction, and one of the ways it plans to leave gasoline cars behind in the coming decades.

As for Audi, Volkswagen’s luxury brand is embracing both fuel cells and battery EV technology.

Jim Watson/AFP

Audi has been adamant about emphasizing alternative-fuel powertrains other than diesel since the company’s emissions scandal broke, and in Detroit we got a look at the h-tron quattro concept for the first time. While we have seen a battery EV SUV concept from the brand at recent auto shows, this model reaffirms the Volkswagen Group’s similar confidence in hydrogen.

Featuring autonomous drive technology from the next A8 and a zero-to-60 time under seven seconds, the h-tron concept is designed to compete with the most advanced luxury utility models coming to market this decade. Unique features include an on-board battery that will provide a power boost to the fuel cell system.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Because of the few hydrogen stations open for business in America, consumers should not expect to see either model hitting dealerships anytime soon. Large investments in fueling infrastructure will be necessary if the automakers hope to create a market for this type of vehicle.

Nonetheless, it is easy to see hydrogen cars developing along the lines of battery electric vehicles in the coming years. For now, only Southern Californians have access to the fuel and the earliest production cars. In the coming years, expect the supply to extend north to the rest of the state. If Toyota and other major automakers continue banking on this fuel as its zero-emissions hope, we will see hydrogen stations increase in number quickly. While it’s doubtful they’ll be as ubiquitous as EV charging stations, the race has only just begun.

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