The future of driving is going to look very different than today. Autonomous vehicles, on-demand shared services, and the connected car will all mold the future of human mobility. Another key trend is the evolution of the powertrain. Two game changing technologies, both Electric Batteries and Hydrogen Fuel Cells, will power the majority of cars and buses in 10-20 years. While everyone is familiar with electric cars made by Telsa, Lucid, and Faraday, most people are less familiar with many of the hydrogen fuel cell cars that have recently appeared on the market.
The majority of international car companies have all experimented with fuel cell technology over the past decade (mainly via concept cars). Three new arrivals, the Toyota Mirai FCV, the Honda FCX Clarity and Hyundai’s Tuscon are all making significant inroads into the California market. Each of these cars is now available for lease.
The Perfect Car
When you think about the perfect automobile, it would have an extremely powerful engine, it would run on plentiful fuels, have very few moving parts, and it would produce zero harmful emissions. Both electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles score very high in each of these categories.
One of the distinct advantages of the hydrogen vehicle is that it offers much faster refueling than electric vehicles (typically, 3 – 5 minutes). Hydrogen based cars also cost substantially less than electric cars as prices have dramatically declined over the past 5 years. The current price point is equivalent to an entry level luxury vehicle. In addition, several car companies are now offering free fuel to their customers which is also key to keeping their driving costs down.
Unlike hydro-carbon based engines, fuel cells emit nothing but non-particulate water (no waste products). In addition, the fuel cell vehicles have much longer ranges than their electric counter-parts and also have rapid acceleration. Many people don’t realize that the majority of fuel cell vehicles actually run off of electric motors. These electric motors are also much simpler than combustion engines and do not require gears.
Critical Mass – Market adoption is the big problem
Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of both of these vehicles is the need to locate sometimes scarce charging / refueling stations. This is especially true on long road-trips. Because of the more recent introduction of the Hydrogen fuel cell, this problem is much more acute. Luckily these cars do come equipped with fueling station locators to help you plan your trip.
While the availability of hydrogen fuel stations is becoming more prominent on the West Coast, especially in the Los Angeles metro area, many urban centers like San Francisco and surrounding regions are still extremely under served. Currently, fueling stations offer two refueling options, H70 which gives you a full tank and H35 which provides a half tank. Given the sparse nature of fueling locations, the H70 is more popular.
Interestingly, hydrogen is the most plentiful and common element in the universe. The technology that makes fuel cells possible is all based on the hydrogen atom. Electricity is created through a chemical reaction that releases electrons that intern powers an electric motor. Some vehicles actually run on pure hydrogen while other systems extract the hydrogen from natural gas. This revolutionary technology has many applications and has also been used to fully power homes and businesses, buses, taxis, forklifts and has also been used at scale in power plants.
At this point in history, consumers don’t have to worry about legacy hydrogen storage issues either (this is not the 1937 Hindenburg disaster waiting to happen). According to some experts, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are actually safer than traditional hydrocarbon burning fueled vehicles. As you might recall, gasoline is also extremely flammable, but that his not stopped daily usage. In the event of an accident where the fuel cell tank is punctured, the hydrogen is quickly disbursed into the atmosphere.
Another short-term drawback, is that the cost of producing hydrogen fuel is very high (twice the cost of gasoline). With new technologies and economies of scale, the cost is expected to fall. On the positive side, the environmental impact from producing hydrogen is a fraction of that for petroleum products or even electricity generation. It is also thought that the use of geothermal heat emitted from the ocean floor at high pressure could provide an ideal environment to produce hydrogen fuel. In general, the lack of low cost / high volume hydrogen production and fueling stations is still an impediment to market adoption.
Strategically, many car companies have realized that hydrogen vehicles are an excellent differentiator to traditional combustion, hybrid or pure electric vehicles. Politically, both electric battery and fuel cell vehicles were probably a much better growth story under the Obama Administration, but there is still a burgeoning market for non-polluting focused consumers and governments globally.