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Car not first application for fuel cells


The car will not be the first application for fuel cells. This is one of the conclusions in the doctoral thesis of Robert van den Hoed, which he will defend on 17 May at TU Delft. “My research project confirms that large organisations such as in the automobile industry have trouble implementing radical changes.” A fuel cell powered car as a case to gain insight into radical innovation theory.

For years now, fuel cells running on hydrogen have been mentioned as an environmentally friendly alternative to the common internal combustion engine. Unfortunately, radical innovation theory predicts that large industries, such as the automobile industry, will probably not be the first to embrace a new technology such as the fuel cell,” says Van den Hoed. “Dinosaurs don’t fly. To its credit though, the automobile industry, which is often accused of conservatism, has already invested billions of Euros in the technology.”

Van den Hoed used this contradiction as a starting point for his research into the motives and mechanisms that could explain the continuing popularity of the combustion engine in the industry. Examining press releases, patents and technology strategies, Van den Hoed studied the innovation process of the fuel cell powered car. He studied twelve brands, among which: General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and BMW.

“The analysis shows that the investments are so high that one cannot speak of a PR-stunt, as some of sceptics suggest,” Van den Hoed explains. “At the same time, there are few signs of real commitment, as the development of this technology is still mostly confined to R&D labs, and there is no real commercialisation of the technology.”

According to Van den Hoed, the very strict environmental requirements being put into place by governments, especially in California, are the main incentive for the enormous investments made by the industry. “These regulations have forced the industry to invest in technological alternatives. It is not something the industry has done of its own accord, but it does have it putting its best foot forward. Moreover, this protects the industry from being caught off guard by new technological developments, or the effects of fluctuating oil prices.”

According to Van den Hoed, the strategies in the industry are mainly defensive and designed to anticipate, which means that the commercialisation of the fuel cell powered car should probably not be expected before 2015. “It is even possible that the fuel cell car could die out before reaching maturity, if the industry has to invest in production capacity. This was the case ten years ago with the electric car. A far more logical assumption is that it is not the automobile industry, but the electronics industry that will be the first to apply fuel cells in its products. After all, to this industry, the fuel cell is not that radical a technology, and it could provide benefits in the short term, for example, being able to call far longer with a mobile phone.”

Maarten van der Sanden | alfa
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