While most analysts and consumers are talking about the shift from internal-combustion cars to electric ones, there’s another side to the green-car story that's quite unknown. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars showed modest but interesting figures last year, suggesting battery-electric power isn't the only path to the future.
The data collected by JATO Dynamics indicates global sales of hydrogen fuel-cell cars totaled 15,500 units around the world in 2021. Although it is very small compared to the sales of other fuel types, the demand increased by 84 percent compared to 2020, when 8,400 fuel-cell vehicles found new owners. Even more impressive is the increase compared to pre-pandemic levels, which stands at 103 percent.
Niche Segment, For How Long?
It is extremely rare to see a hydrogen fuel-cell car on the streets. Since 2011, approximately 41,700 hydrogen vehicles have been sold – roughly the same number of cars sold in China by Volkswagen Group in just four days. Prices for these vehicles are high, and the lack of a strong hydrogen infrastructure contributes to the low sales figures. Also, there are just very few choices for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles right now.
To that point, 98 percent of the sales volume for hydrogen cars last year corresponded to only two models: the Hyundai Nexo and the Toyota Mirai. The remaining sales came from the phased-out Honda Clarity and a minuscule number of test cars from brands such as Renault, Maxus, BMW, and Peugeot.
Nevertheless, future plans for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are in contrast to current sales volumes. Following the introduction of the second-generation Toyota Mirai, other automakers such as BMW and Volkswagen announced the development of hydrogen-powered vehicles along with a series of new battery-electric cars.
For instance, BMW is planning to make 100 hydrogen test units of the X5 this year. Kia announced plans for a hydrogen fuel-cell lineup in 2028. Volkswagen Group is leaving all the fuel-cell research and development to teams at Audi, which already has more than 100 people involved. Daimler and Volvo trucks are also betting on this technology for their larger commercial vehicles.
South Korea Leads The Way, By Far
Until these in-development vehicles come to life, the statistics show South Korea is by far the largest hydrogen fuel-cell car market. The figures for 2021 put this nation ahead of all others by a significant margin.
Thanks to the dominant position of Hyundai and the expansion of hydrogen infrastructure, South Korea accounts for 55 percent of the global volume. Sales jumped from almost 5,800 units in 2020 to just over 8,500 units last year. And it all comes down to one vehicle: the Hyundai Nexo. It's the best-selling hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle in the world, with 92 percent of all 9,208 global Nexo sales taking place in its home market of South Korea.
The Nexo went on sale in 2018 but it's not the only hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle of note. The second-generation Toyota Mirai went on sale in 2019, and sales increased by a whopping 257 percent in 2021 as a result. Interestingly, the Mirai’s main market in 2021 wasn't South Korea, but actually, the United States. 2,629 units were sold there, followed by Japan at 2,438 units and 730 vehicles throughout Europe.
The author of the article, Felipe Munoz, is the Automotive Industry Specialist at JATO Dynamics.