Heid and others have yet to write off hydrogen, noting that it is a good fit for heavy-duty trucks.
In a long-haul Class 8 truck, the heavy batteries take up too much weight and reduce load. Moreover, long charging times defeat their ability to transport goods nimbly. Filling a hydrogen vehicle takes about the same time as a diesel truck.
Toyota is working with Kenworth to create a fuel cell Class 8 truck and already has prototypes operating in Southern California. Daimler Truck Group—the owner of Freightliner—and Volvo Trucks are working together to create a fuel cell powertrain. Other hydrogen truck developers include Hyundai Motor Group and Nikola Corp.
One advantage of trucking is that it requires fewer fueling stations. A network of hydrogen stations, scattered at intervals across the major trucking routes, would allow the long-haul freight industry to use fuel cells.
However, Toyota, Honda and Hyundai still believe there is a role for fuel cell light vehicles and are pushing forward.
Japan and South Korea have long supported hydrogen infrastructure development, and in turn, Toyota and Honda have already spent three decades developing fuel cell technology.
Honda said the design of its hydrogen CR-V will help build confidence in the technology. The new model will include a plug-in aspect, allowing electric charging.
"Electric works for daily usage and provides convenient overnight charging," said Ryan Harty, the head of energy business development at American Honda Motor Co.
"Hydrogen provides that additional long range and enables the customer to have fast refueling at a public station."
Honda's hybrid approach also underlines the philosophy it shares with Toyota: that hydrogen fuel cell technology will complement and augment, rather than displace, EV vehicles.
"There is a completely different use case for hydrogen," said Jackie Birdsall, the Fuel Cell Ingration Group senior engineering manager at Toyota Motor North America Research and Development.
It could become a good alternative for drivers "who don't own their own homes, live in apartment buildings in cities where heat and air is a problem, juggle kids and jobs, and don't have the luxury of sitting at a charger."
And even if hydrogen car sales take years to enter the U.S., Toyota, Honda and other auto makers have established global standards for a universal design.
That significantly lowers market entry barriers, even at a later date.
But even hydrogen enthusiasts admit that hydrogen fuel cell light vehicles remain the solution of the future. McKinsey's Heid estimates widespread commercialization will take at least a few decades and will be driven partly by grid capacity challenges.
Meanwhile, both EV and hydrogen fuel cell technology is evolving, and it would be shortsighted to undermine further technology research, said Gary Silberg, who leads national automotive industry research at KPMG.
"We should invest in EVs and infrastructure because it is important, but hydrogen is also important to this story and should be important," Silberg said, describing himself as bullish on hydrogen's long-term prospects. "It would be foolhardy to put all our eggs in one basket."