It's not exactly the USA versus the USSR over which country could get to the moon first. (Actually, the technology involved is, in many ways, more complicated.)
But the sudden rivalry between two coalitions of global automakers over fuel-cell technology will be an interesting and important struggle over the next few years. Which team — Daimler, Ford and Nissan, or BMW and Toyota — will be first to jointly bring an affordable, zero-emission car to market powered by hydrogen?
"We believe we were never as close to reaching a breakthrough in fuel-cell cars as today thanks to this partnership," said Thomas Weber, Daimler's head of research and development, according to Automotive News.
The age of mass-market, affordable fuel cell electric vehicles may soon be here thanks to a unique, three-way agreement among Nissan, Daimler and Ford. The three auto giants have joined forces to share Research & Development and investment for this next-generation, zero-emission technology.
Daimler, Ford and Nissan said that they aim to produce at least 100,000 fuel-cell cars by investing equally in the research project, then each selling an individually branded fuel-cell car beginning in 2017.
Meanwhile, BMW and Toyota recently finalized a technology-cooperation deal which includes joint creation of a fuel-cell propulsion system by 2020; Toyota last year announced plans to have a practical and production-ready hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle ready by 2015.
There's no word at this point on where other global automotive heavyweights, including GM, Volkswagen and Honda, might fit into this race.
In any event, the newly formed competition represents an interesting new phase in the green-technology race among automakers. Almost all of them have been fielding variously sized fleets of electrified vehicles but finding public reception lukewarm at best. Clean diesel has become an increasingly significant player. And with every auto company squeezing better mileage out of conventional powertrains — and greater bullishness on global supplies of hydrocarbons than in quite some time — there's a question whether gasoline will reign as the preferred fuel for many years to come.
Hydrogen fuel cells once were the stuff of science fiction because they use a fuel that is virtually limitless and emits no pollution. Automakers have been experimenting with the technology for decades: GM has had a Chevrolet Equinox running on hydrogen for several years now, and Daimler has a test fleet of about 200 hydrogen-powered vehicles.
In fact, the biggest remaining challenge for fuel cells is the hydrogen-distribution infrastructure that would be required for the technology to go mainstream. (Witness the trouble that EV advocates have had just getting a critical mass of 220-volt chargers installed around the U.S.)
But don't be surprised to see hydrogen-powered vehicles leapfrog electric ones in a few years.