A hydrogen fuel cell is a unit that combines hydrogen fuel with oxygen to create electricity. A joint venture is a partnership where companies that would otherwise compete join forces to reach a goal. Today we have news about both of those things: Ford, Daimler, and Nissan will officially join forces to develop affordable fuel cell vehicles over the next four years.
This isn't the first time that we've seen a partnership between competing car companies to mainstream this technology: Toyota and BMW joined together just days ago to develop fuel cells and a new sports car. Daimler and Ford already had a joint venture called Automotive Fuel Cell Corporation; neither Honda nor Hyundai have partners, but both already have working prototypes of fuel cell vehicles.
While Nissan won't formally take a stake in Automotive Fuel Cell Corporation--the contract negotiations would take too long-- it will work with Ford and Daimler towards a clear goal of selling an affordable fuel-cell vehicle by 2017.
As it stands now, it looks like all three manufacturers will sell their own cars, but the models would be powered by the same propulsion system and ride the same platform--not unlike the partnership that created the Toyota FT-86/Scion FR-S and Subaru BRZ. Together, the three companies will invest equal amounts of money in the project (although no actual figures were given), and, combined, the three automakers hope to sell at least 100,000 cars.
All of this sounds very good, but the major impediment here is the fact that a typical driver can't drive down to their corner fuel station and ask the attendant to "fill it up with hydrogen." American hydrogen infrastructure needs to progress for these cars to be viable and it won't come cheap: it's estimated that outfitting an existing gas station with a hydrogen pump will cost $1 million. There is currently a smattering of hydrogen-pumping stations across the country, but they are few and far between.
Still, Daimler, Nissan, and Ford hope that their partnership--and other similar deals--will send a clear signal that hydrogen is well on its way to becoming a mainstream fuel.