LONDON – European Union lawmakers are stepping up efforts to establish technical standards covering hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

The European Commission is opening the matter to public comment (through Sept. 15) as it seeks to ensure rapid technical development of hydrogen power by auto makers is not held back by safety fears and conflicting national safety rules.

In part, regulations could set bogeys for auto makers to meet on crash integrity of compressed/liquefied hydrogen fuel tanks, given the flammable and volatile nature of hydrogen.

“The industry is ready for a consultation in this area,” a spokesman for the U.K.’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says.

“Both in the U.K. and in Europe, the industry recognizes that hydrogen is the fuel of the future, though whether that’s as a propellant or as used in a fuel cell is open to development and market acceptance,” he says. “Either way, there is a number of issues that need to be resolved, and the main ones are infrastructure, safe storage, availability and sustainable production.”

He says every major auto maker in Europe now is investing in the technology, and it is critical to know which way the government may be leaning on regulations.

“It’s very important that we in the industry provide input and that we guide the European authorities, through our expertise and experience, in how they should be developing hydrogen and hydrogen-refueling infrastructures,” he says.

The EC strongly favors the development of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, both for environmental reasons and to avoid relying on expensive and sometimes unreliable petroleum supplies. But it also is aware any new rules would have to steer a careful course between preserving public safety and stifling innovation.

“We want the consultation to show us the right direction,” an EC spokesman says. “But we have to be aware also of rules being developed in other major motor markets. We start with an open mind.”

Companies at the forefront of hydrogen fuel-cell development, such as DaimlerChrysler AG, tell Ward’s they welcome the EC’s decision to move forward on the regulatory side.

“This is a very important issue,” says Klaus Bonhoff, responsible for demonstration projects and market development of fuel-cell drivetrain policy at DC in Germany. “The auto industry is heavily investing in bringing hydrogen-fueled vehicles to the market, and for that it is necessary to have harmonized global regulations.

“There are already various processes going on in the U.S., and in that context it’s time that the European Commission began to develop its own laws.”

However, “there is a question over how detailed these drafts need to be,” he adds.

Bonhoff says final agreement on safety standards, enforcement and penalties will require lengthy negotiations between EU authorities and the European auto industry.

“We have a line of global demonstration projects for hydrogen in Europe, the U.S., Japan, Singapore and, for buses, in China and Australia,” Bonhoff adds. “We believe we’re doing the right thing here in developing a hydrogen infrastructure, building up public goodwill and creating customer acceptance of the new technology.”