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Ford, Daimler and Nissan team up on fuel cell car development

Cars pumping out only water could be on the road by 2017, industry experts said.

Automakers team fuel cellEnlarge
A Mercedes-Benz F 125 Concept fuel cell hybrid car is on display at the international motor show in Frankfurt, Germany, on Sept. 14, 2011. Daimler AG, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, announced a partnership with Ford and Renault-Nissan to speed development of fuel cell cars. (Patrik Stollarz/AFP/Getty Images)

Ford, Daimler AG (which owns Mercedes-Benz and Smart) and Renault-Nissan announced a partnership yesterday to speed up the development of zero-emission fuel cell electric vehicles by sharing the costs of investment.

Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) use electro-chemical reactions between hydrogen and oxygen to generate electricity, producing only water vapor and heat as by-products.

BMW and Toyota are on the verge of finalizing their own deal to work together on FCEVs.

Technology-sharing deals like these are common in an industry where the costs of developing new technology are very high. While each automaker will face more competition in selling its own FCEV, each will benefit from a more developed market and infrastructure.

Genevieve Cullen, vice-president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, called the deal a "good and important step," and a sign that the automakers are committed to commercialization of FCEVs. The move into the field by Ford, Daimler AG, and Nissan will "create a big wake," she said.

The technology behind fuel cell cars is undeveloped compared to that of hybrid and electric vehicles, but cars pumping out only water could be on the road by 2017, Cullen said. This new deal should make that target more attainable.

In a joint press release, the automakers said their collaboration "sends a clear signal to suppliers, policymakers and the industry to encourage further development of hydrogen refuel stations and other infrastructure necessary to allow the vehicles to be mass-marketed."

The biggest benefit may be standardization: Because all the FCEVs from the three automakers will use the same fuel cell system, the production of that system will be more cost-effective than if it worked for fewer cars.

The deal should also encourage more, necessary research. The Union of Concerned Scientists notes that pure hydrogen gas does not occur in nature in concentrated amounts. Methods for producing hydrogen (extracting it from sources like natural gas and coal) exist, but more work is needed to find way to produce it from renewable resources.

Such research is more likely to move forward if three large companies will benefit from it, and the automakers know it.

And that's the point of the collaboration: The promise of three big companies to produce fuel cell electric vehicles could be enough to bring to life the infrastructure and market for those vehicles.

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