Hydrogen was the fuel of tomorrow, so what happened?

Just a few short years ago, hydrogen and battery electric vehicles were both excitedly vying to become the future of the automobile. Expert punditry was split on which alternative would emerge triumphant and save us all from our fossil-fuel overlords.

The Japanese automakers in particular have always been major proponents of hydrogen fuel as the perfect replacement for gasoline and diesel fuels, and as late as 2006 Ford and GM were debuting hydrogen car concepts, with BMW carrying the torch up to 2015. Currently, there are three hydrogen fuel cell cars available for lease or purchase: The Toyota Mirai, the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, and the Hyundai NEXO.

Heading into 2020, the primacy of battery electric vehicles as our propulsion future seems absolute, and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem to be nothing but a diversion. How did we get here, and is hydrogen a lost cause?

A different kind of gas

The promises of hydrogen are convincing indeed. It is a clean fuel with no harmful tailpipe emissions (unless you are harmed by water and oxygen. If so, please see a doctor immediately). Hydrogen vehicles are basically electric cars with a fuel tank. They boast the performance and instant torque of battery electric cars, while providing greater range than any pure EV on the market today. Lastly, refueling times are comparable to gasoline cars, obviating range anxiety and lengthy charging stops. And no conversation of hydrogen power would be complete without a mention that this is the most abundant element in the universe – so we can move on now.

bmw is preparing for a hydrogen future 6

The detractors of hydrogen would point out that fuel cell tanks can explode in an accident, that the fueling infrastructure is lacking, and that the technology is unproven. And they would be completely right. But frankly all or some of these are roughly the same negatives as using gasoline, diesel, pure-grain alcohol, steam, or battery electric cars. Every fuel source has its own shortcomings, and hydrogen’s are certainly not outsized compared to its competitors.

Every fuel source has its own shortcomings, and hydrogen’s are certainly not outsized compared to its competitors.

Fueling stations can be built in anticipation of future demand, much like what’s being done right now with EV charging stations. Fuel cells can be made safe in all but the worst crashes, as was done decades ago with gasoline fuel tanks. The technology can be proven and improved, as happens with any piece of engineering with widespread use.

No, what is actually holding hydrogen back is often rarely discussed because it is not as sexy as exploding fuel tanks or life-cycle carbon emissions (and you have to admit both of those are NSFW-level sexy). The limiting factor here is money, particularly the money belonging to the end consumer and driver.

The economics of fuel economy

At the moment, both fuel cell and battery electric vehicles are more expensive than their internal combustion counterparts, even taking local and federal government incentives into account. At every level of the market, you can get a larger and nicer car for the same price as an EV or hydrogen car.

BMW 5 Series GT hydrogen fuel-cell prototype

Consumers are willing to swallow this bitter pill in the case of battery electric cars because although the initial purchase price is higher, the monthly savings from not purchasing gasoline tilt the arithmetic just in favor of the consumer. Add in a pinch of warm feeling from helping to save the world and you have the makings of a rational purchase decision.

Hydrogen, however, has no such favorable arithmetic yet. Fuel cell cars themselves are more expensive to purchase new, and the hydrogen fuel costs work out to roughly $5.60 a gallon today according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership.

Currently all three hydrogen cars on the market offer three years’ worth of fuel for free when you lease the vehicle.  This is obviously not a scalable solution and once these credits are no longer offered, no amount of altruistic eco-warrior feelings will surmount the initial price-plus-fuel cost numbers for anyone other than Bill Nye.

If hydrogen is ever to compete, the fuel will have to be drastically cheaper than gasoline. This can happen either through improvements to our hydrogen harvesting processes, or if gasoline drastically rises in price.

Neither of these scenarios are outside the realm of possibilities, but with no breakthroughs forthcoming, battery electric cars appear to be our immediate future. Some sort of fuel cell hybrid could plug the gap for long trips in EVs, and full hydrogen could enable EV semi trucks for cross-country hauling.

The door is not completely closed on hydrogen cars, but until something changes on the fueling cost of fuel cells, they will remain a very promising technology that could’ve helped save our planet, but instead went nowhere.

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