Significant investments have been made in both hydrogen and electric cars over the years, but which one will ultimately reign supreme? Is this your classic VHS/Betamax battle to the death, or could the two automobiles settle into an eventual Pepsi/Coke truce, where neither gains total market dominance?
Both auto-types run on clean energy and both have been touted as the next big thing, but industry experts and government figures remain divided on which is the superior car of the future.
General Motors, Nissan, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Mitsubishi and Fiat all have plugins either on the road or in development. However, GM, Toyota and Honda have also spent quite a bit on researching and developing hydrogen car prototypes.
Tesla, of course, is the biggest, baddest EV on the block, but no one’s questioning which side of the war it’s on. In 2013, Tesla co-founder and CEO Elon Musk said the “[hydrogen] fuel cell is so bullshit. Except in a rocket.” He has also taken to calling fuel cells “fool cells” on occasion.
Certainly Musk is biased, but when you cut through the conceptual competition, how do the cars stack up?
Compared to EVs, hydrogen cars do pack a powerful punch. Street-ready hydrogen cars have about three times the range of an EV and can be refueled in minutes. Also, hydrogen power, unlike electric power, can be scaled up to larger vehicles. Because a Tesla runs on a lithium-ion battery, its power is limited to how many li-ion cells it packs. But, past a certain point, the weight of the extra cells will negate whatever extra power you put in there. At present, technology limits how big electric vehicles can get.
Not so hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs), which can scale as big as long-haul trucks. Hydrogen cells are basically “miniature power plants” that generate electricity by combining the air flowing through the vehicle with pressurized hydrogen (stored at 10,000 psi in the vehicle’s tank). The only byproduct from combining air and hydrogen is water that is “clean enough to drink,” according to the New York Times.
The two biggest downsides to hydrogen, Quartz reports, are the lack of infrastructure and the price tag. California actually wants to build over 40 new hydrogen refueling stations by the end of 2015 (currently there are nine in the state), but there are a scant few throughout the rest of the country. That in itself isn’t so major a hurdle – EVs face the same challenge (though they can be plugged into the wall at home) – but the cost is not so easily surmounted.
Quartz’s Todd Woody test drove a Mercedes fuel cell prototype in 2007 that cost almost $1 million to build. At that price even Tesla’s $100,000 model looks like a steal.
But if the price could somehow be reduced, automakers in the hydrogen camp think they’ve got the better deal. Driving and refueling an FCV would be very similar to driving and refueling a gasoline-powered car, and that’s what Craig Scott, Toyota’s U.S. national manager of advanced technology vehicles, is banking on.
“We don’t see any reason customers wouldn’t adopt this technology in exchange for a gasoline vehicle as there’s no trade-offs,” Scott told Quartz.
But hydrogen also has another count against it, one that won’t do it any favors in the environmental camp. Producing the hydrogen needed to power the vehicle actually causes more carbon emissions than an equal amount of gas.
According to Clean Technica’s Julian Cox,
“There are two huge problems with FCVs for those who worry about global warming and hence net greenhouse gas emissions:  In general, some 95% of our hydrogen is currently produced from natural gas, or, rather, from the methane (CH4) that compromises most of natural gas.  Making hydrogen from renewable resources like carbon-free electricity is expensive and an incredibly wasteful use of that valuable resource.”
There’s also the fact that Steven Chu, Nobel Prize-winning physicist and President Obama’s current Energy Secretary, has no love for FCVs. In 2009, he told Joe Romm that “[h]ydrogen fuel cell cars are a dead end from a technological, practical, and climate perspective.”
What do you think? Is the EV/FCV war over or is it just heating up?