Honda's FCX Clarity

Honda's FCX Clarity: Headed for the market. (Honda photo / July 10, 2013)

Get ready for the future. General Motors and Honda said last week that they will collaborate on a joint hydrogen fuel-cell powertrain to be on the market by 2020. Well, I guess you have some time to get ready for the future. Fuel cells are, perennially, tomorrow's tech, and that's still true but our date with destiny is advancing.

Ford, Nissan and Mercedes are also working together on fuel cells. It makes sense. Developing a new powertrain technology is cripplingly expensive, so why not have a whole host of common parts instead of building everything from scratch? Automakers are usually intensely competitive and proprietary, but it doesn't make sense with hydrogen.

"We are very excited," said GM's Charlie Freese, who heads the company's fuel-cell work (and recently moved it from New York to Michigan). "This is the first such collaboration in which two industry leaders have come together to combine their know-how." Actually, it's not really that unique, and even Honda and GM have worked together on fuel cells before, back in 2005. But this is the first major project to aim at producing a common drivetrain.

According to Robert Bienenfeld, Honda's assistant vice president for environment and energy strategy, "The only way to take costs out is to go through this learning cycle and then scale up. GM and Honda can do that together."

Honda is actually committed to bringing a fuel-cell car, the ultra-cool Honda FCX Clarity, to market in 2015. The company is even selling a few of them now. GM is noncommittal about when it will sell fuel cell cars, but at least now it will have a workable drivetrain.

Bienenfeld admits that the early rollout of fuel-cell cars will be slow, and that's largely because of infrastructure — there aren't many hydrogen stations, which cost $1 to $2 million to build. "There are 10 stations in California now," he said, "and with existing contracts the number will grow to 25 in the next two years."

A pending California law would commit huge state funds to helping build those hydrogen stations. The state air quality agency, the immensely powerful California Air Resources Board, tried muscling gas station operators with something called the Clean Fuels Outlet, which would require them to dispense hydrogen along with the gas. The Western States Petroleum Association, among others, protested mightily and threatened litigation.

Hydrogen will be kick-started regionally, with California by far in the lead. New York is also being eyed, but it's not moving fast. Connecticut, of course, has its own hydrogen stations, at Proton in Wallingford and United Technologies in South Windsor, among others.