Would you like a brand new $50,000 car for under $18,000 — with 100,000km of free fuel? Or a factory-fresh $60,000 saloon at half-price?

What if those vehicles were powered by hydrogen? Would you still want one?

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According to analyst IDTechEx, 2021 saw an 82% year-on-year increase in fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) sales. Global sales of Toyota’s Mirai rose from 1,770 vehicles in 2020 to 5,918 in 2021, while Hyundai’s Nexo saw demand grow from 6,781 in 2020 to 9,620 last year.

“At face value, this seems positive for the fuel cell industry. But when you look closer at the drivers for this growth, it shows the lengths to which Toyota, Hyundai, and the governments supporting the rollout of fuel cell vehicles are having to go to build this momentum,” said IDTechEx in a statement.

“For example, in California, the [new, second-generation] Mirai was reportedly available at a 65% discount from its $50k+ list price. With Toyota offering a $20k discount in addition to US federal and state-level tax incentives totaling a further $12.5k, the Mirai was available in the US in 2021 for a shade under $18k.

“To sweeten the deal further, Toyota also offered a $15k fuel credit for the first three years of operation. A $50k car for less than $20k with 100,000 kilometers of free fuel is undoubtedly an appealing deal.”

It is a similar story for Hyundai, the UK-based analyst adds, pointing to the fact that 88% of the Nexo models sold last year were in its home nation of South Korea.

“South Korean national and state incentives in 2021 meant the sale of each $60k Nexo was supported with a subsidy provision of around $30k. An attractive 50% discount,” IDTechEx explained. “It is hard to envisage how such support is viable for any sustained period.”

While an 82% annual increase in sales might sound impressive, but the grand total of 15,538 FCEV sales was dwarfed by the 4.6 million battery electric vehicles (BEVs) sold worldwide in 2021, and 1.9 million plug-in hybrid EVs (according to the EV-Volumes database) — which represented a 108% increase from the 3.1 million EVs sold in 2020.

IDTechEx says the “main problem” for FCEVs is not the poor hydrogen refuelling infrastructure or fuel-cell technology —it is the “high emissions and cost of the hydrogen itself”.

“Green hydrogen is not yet produced in any great volume and when produced it is comparatively expensive,” says the analyst, pointing out that about 95% of all H2 is generated from unabated fossil fuels (ie, grey).

“Toyota gives the new Mirai fuel consumption at 0.86kgH2/100km, so running on grey H2 the Mirai emits around 94gCO2/km, whilst the NEXO (1kgH2/100km) emits around 109gCO2/km. These figures are only a marginal improvement on the CO2 tailpipe emissions of modern combustion engines... to be truly ‘green’, fuel-cell vehicles need green H2.

“It is a brave government that commits to large public spending to support the purchase of fuel cell vehicles on the promise that one day the fuel will be available to make them low emission... there are substantial production and distribution challenges to overcome to make H2 a cost-effective zero-emission automotive fuel.”

IDTechEx’s statistics come from its new 413-page report, Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles 2022-2042.

Recharge has written at length about why fuel-cell cars are “stupid” — click here for the full analysis.