Ford, Nissan and Daimler team up to build hydrogen-powered cars

The car of the future is already here, it’s just too expensive. But that might change soon.

Ford, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz’s parent company Daimler have announced an alliance to jointly-develop affordable hydrogen-powered vehicles that could be on the road as soon as 2017.

The effort is focused on bringing down the cost on fuel cells, which are devices that generate electricity through a chemical reaction that combines hydrogen and oxygen to make water. These cells would effectively replace the heavy, slow-to-charge and expensive battery packs used in most electric cars today.

The hydrogen used in the process is stored in high-pressure tanks on board that can be refilled in a matter of minutes and is mixed with oxygen from the surrounding air. The technology has been employed for years in space satellites and generators, but has proven to be too pricey for production cars. The trio of automakers hopes that by pooling their resources they will be able to accelerate the development of the technology and reach economies of scale that will allow it to be used in mainstream automobiles.

Mercedes-Benz is currently operating a small fleet of fuel cell-powered test cars called the F-Cell in California that are leased to drivers for $849 a month, a subsidized price that doesn’t accurately represent the true cost of the vehicle. The company had planned to enter full production with the car in 2015, but last week said it was delaying the introduction do to the expected high costs of the program.

Toyota has announced plans to offer a fuel cell-powered vehicle in 2015, originally with a target price of $50,000, but has since indicated that it could end up costing substantially more. The Japanese automaker is also teaming up with BMW to develop the next generation of the technology with an eye on a 2020 debut.

Another factor holding back the adoption of hydrogen as a viable motor fuel that the Ford-Nissan-Daimler tie-up doesn’t directly address is the lack of infrastructure currently in place for its distribution. There are currently less than 100 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States, many of which are not publically accessible, compared to over 150,000 gasoline stations. Unlike battery-electric carmaker Tesla, which is in the process of building its own network of high-speed charging stations to service its customers’ vehicles, the three automakers are not planning to invest in hydrogen filling station construction, but hope that their commitment to manufacture these types of vehicles on a large scale will spur others to do so.