Hydrogen is the most viable fuel for powering the passenger cars of the future, so said a group of well-placed experts this afternoon. And for once talk like that is being backed up with actions.

It was the message anyone who attended today’s plenary session on the future of hydrogen for passenger cars at World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi would have taken away.

While the debate on the cost, range and technology limitations and infrastructure for electric cars rumbles on, it seems hydrogen fuel-cell technology has been slowly developing in the background and is now on the cusp of deployment. Cars like Mercedes’ B-class F-cell and Honda’s FCX Clarity have shown us this in recent months.

Before we get to the benefits, it’s worth considering the biggest problem of hydrogen: an infrastructure to support its distribution.

Production of hydrogen to power the cars is not the problem, nor is its relative cost. Shell’s Jurgen Louis said hydrogen is already produced on a large scale; three to four per cent of all the energy produced in the world is hydrogen.

“Its distribution in both liquid and compressed forms is by special pipelines and trucks,” he said. “These are much more expensive than normal pipelines. Current hydrogen production is enough to set-up a mobility network. We just need regional networks to support this.”

Germany and Japan are leading the way when it comes to setting up hydrogen networks and all major manufacturers in those countries are working with oil companies (95 per cent of hydrogen comes from natural gas still, a figure that will fall as wind and solar energy production evolves) and utility companies to get these networks set-up – and fast.

Japan has already committed to 100 hydrogen fuel stations by 2015, 1000 by 2020 and 5000 by 2030. In Germany, there will be 1000 within the next few years and its major manufacturers, including Mercedes, have committed to producing 100,000 hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles between them to get the technology up and running.

The year 2015 will be when the first batch of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles hit the market; Toyota and Mercedes made the pledge today that this is the year they are working to.

Interestingly, Mercedes’ Herbert Wohler showed a presentation in yesterday’s EV discussion that plotted the time-scale for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to take off next to that of EVs. While the fuel-cell side detailed a timeframe of where the technology will go in stages over the next few years until 2015, the EV timeframe ended at 2012 when initial production of the Smart Fortwo ED will start. It seems manufacturers are not sure how the technology will evolve or be accepted by customers.

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have the support of Germany and Japan and the major manufacturers in these countries. There is no discussion on standard charging points or work needed on setting up a predominantly city centre-based network and all the problems this entails. Range is not an issue, nor are we waiting for the technology to evolve at such a rate that it becomes more usable and affordable.

Toyota’s Katsuhiko Hirose said on his firm’s hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle plans: “We will meet targets for temperature, quality and reliability by 2015. We are nearly there with the car, have plans for the infrastructure and the costs will come down in mass production.”

Hirose-san also had some words for those worried about the industry evolving away from the internal combustion engine as the oil wells begin to run dry.

“Cars are evolving like creatures. High oil prices are forcing this and we need to make it more affordable,” he said. “And remember: the end of the Stone Age wasn’t down to the end of stone…”