Multiple Manufacturers Pushing Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars, But Can They Catch Tesla?

After years of working on prototype vehicles, multiple car companies have announced a major push for hydrogen fuel cell automobiles. At the LA Auto Show last week, Toyota showed off its Mirai, a four-door passenger sedan with a $57,500 base sticker price and a hydrogen-only fuel system. Honda recently delayed its hydrogen-powered FCX Clarity Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle until 2016, while Hyundai is planning to build 1000 fuel-cell powered Tucson's by the end of the year.

Currently, most proposed hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are actually combined hydrogen-electric designs. Hydrogen gas, under enormous pressure, is used to drive a generator, which then charged a lithium-ion battery. Toyota plans to sell up to 3,000 Mirai a year by 2017, which would put it well below Tesla's own sales projections for its Model S -- but at a lower overall price point.

The Alternative Fuel Boom

Underlying Toyota's plans are an argument that hydrogen fuel cells are better suited to be a replacement fuel technology than lithium-ion batteries. There's no arguing the energy potential of hydrogen -- it contains more explosive power per kilogram than any other substance known to man. The problem with pressurized hydrogen is that it contains very little energy per liter.(a measure of volume).


To put this in perspective: The pressurized fuel tanks in the Mirai can hold a total of 122 liters of hydrogen for an estimated range of 300 miles. A standard gasoline-powered car with a 122L range at 30mpg would be capable of traveling 960 miles.

Proponents of hydrogen point to the vastly improved fueling time (roughly equal that of gasoline) as opposed to the 20-60 minutes required to recharge a vehicle like Tesla's Model S. All-electric fans, meanwhile, would argue that the Tesla Model S doesn't require relying on one of the most explosive gases known to man as a power supply, and that we don't have to build a radically different fueling system to handle the substance.

Both sides have good points. It's much easier to imagine overhauling existing stations to retrofit 220V power adapters than to overhaul a gas station for pressurized hydrogen pumping. Similarly, hydrogen proponents are right about one thing -- lithium ion batteries are miserably inefficient when measured in terms of power per liter (volume) or power per kilogram (mass).

The long-term question really being argued over these debates is what kind of inefficiency and headache consumers are willing to tolerate compared to gasoline vehicles and which form of technology will scale more effectively to meet consumer needs. Battery costs still make up a substantial chunk of the Model S price tag, and while Musk has pledged free charging for Model S owners at the companies Supercharger stations, the math on making a Model S cheaper for a given consumer depends a great deal of federal and state tax rebates + the total amount you drive the vehicle. Toyota is taking a similar take with the Mirai and pledging three years of free hydrogen for the vehicle. Combined with the $57,500 price tag, the hydrogen fuel cell car may end up substantially cheaper than a Tesla Model S, at least initially. Challenging the bottom of the market where the likes of Leaf or Chevy's Volt compete will be a different story, but these vehicles are marketed as short-range solutions.

The challenges of hydrogen fuel cells are different than lithium-ion, but both require substantial consumer behavior shifts to see mass adoption. If you're considering a technology, which are do you favor -- and what do you want to see from the purveyors before you'd buy in?