That Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Have Some Sort Of Spot To Fill In The Future. If Enough Effort Is Put Into This Technology
As electric-powered cars continue to grow in popularity, it’s really no longer a surprise that gas-powered vehicles are going to likely be replaced entirely within the next decade or two. Most people are sold on the idea of electricity powering their vehicles, as it provides them with the instantaneous acceler-ation, the convenience of charging at home, and countless financial savings when compared to gasoline counterparts. But companies such as Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda haven’t yet given up on the idea of hydrogen fuel cell cars. Do they really stand a chance against Tesla or electric cars in general? Let’s find out.
How a Hydrogen Powertrain Works
Before we start discussing whether this technology stands a chance in upcoming years, it would probably be a good idea to understand how they work first. To start, a hydrogen-powered car has an extremely elaborate powertrain, especially when compared to an EV’s (electric vehicle’s) surprisingly simple powertrain. It’s not necessarily overly complex, but there are a total of four components making the car move. The fuel tank, fuel cell, battery, and electric motor. There’s also a power control unit (PCU) that helps with regenerative braking, but this can also be found in both electric and hybrid vehicles. When hydrogen enters the tank through the “neck”, it then travels to the fuel cell. Once in the fuel cell, it mixes with oxygen, and, apart from making water that shoots out the tailpipe, it creates electricity. This newly made electricity travels to the battery, which is just a fraction of the size of one you would find in EV’s, and then finally goes to the motor, which powers the wheels.
The reason the car can still travel several hundred miles with such a small battery is that the fuel cell is constantly making electricity, meaning that the battery doesn’t have to be able to hold large amounts of electricity all at once. A noticeable difference between the two powertrains is the difference in acceleration. While not all EV’s are as blisteringly fast as Tesla’s, they sure deliver instantaneous torque from the get-go. In a hydrogen car, however, there is a slight delay, like what you would experience in a gasoline vehicle. This is because the car needs to take in some air from outside to make the electricity that’s necessary to move. While there’s definitely nothing wrong with how a hydrogen-powered car drives, there have yet to be any even moderately fast fuel cell vehicles. For that reason, I think the powertrain aspect goes to EV’s.
The (Lack of an) Infrastructure
While the charging infrastructure for EV’s can be a frustrating mess at times, except for Tesla’s Supercharging network, at least they have an infrastructure. One of the main promised conveniences of owning a fuel cell car is that they’ll take around the same time to fill up as a gasoline counterpart, or a little under 10 minutes. Filling up in under 10 minutes is kind of hard to do, however, when you can only own these cars in California, and even then only have 50 stations to choose from.
It could be argued that hydrogen is perhaps one of the most abundant resources in the world, but making these stations is ridiculously expensive, and so is the hydrogen itself. Luckily, all the manufacturers who create fuel cell cars, Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai, offer up to $15,000 or 45,000 miles of pre-paid fuel. There are a few drawbacks when it comes to these vehicles’ practicality, however. One such drawback is that you can only lease these cars for up to three years. Another is, despite the rather lengthy range for a battery-operated vehicle, road trips that go further than 150 or so miles outside of California probably aren’t the best idea. Because of this lack of infrastructure, not only can the range potentially be a burden on road trips that go outside of California, but the faster fill-up times aren’t really a pro, since you’d likely have to go out of your way to find a hydrogen station.
Cost, Cost, and Cost
It’s a good thing that you’re given $15,000 over the lifetime of your lease because you’re probably going to need every single penny of it. To compare the prices between hydrogen, gasoline, and electricity, let’s compare three similar vehicles from the same manufacturer. These vehicles will be the Hyundai Nexo, a hydrogen-powered SUV, the Hyundai Kona EV, along with a normal, gasoline Hyundai Kona. For this comparison, we’ll use the prices of all three fuels in California because it’s the only place in which you can own a Nexo. The normal Kona would cost roughly $42 to go it’s claimed range of 356 miles, which roughly translates into around 11.8 cents per mile. The Kona E.V costs $6.43 to charge to 80%, which is what’s recommended, and it provides a range of 223 miles, translating into a cost of only 2.9 cents per mile! The Nexo, on the other hand, costs a staggering $110 for a fillup, providing 380 miles of range, and a cost of 29 cents per mile! That’s only five cents per mile less than a Hummer! (And no, not the upcoming electric one.)
Needless to say, if you plan on keeping a hydrogen-powered car for longer than 45,000 miles, it will burn a literal hole in your wallet. Another thing to consider is that these hydrogen cars start anywhere from just under $50,000, like the 2021 Toyota Mirai, to just under $60,000, like the Hyundai Nexo and Honda Clarity. To put that into perspective, for the price of a base Mirai, you could get a Long Range Tesla Model 3, or even a fairly equipped Mercedes-Benz C-Class or BMW 3 Series. Thankfully the leasing pricing is rather attractive, given the price, but leasing is never a cheap option, and these cars are no exception. If you’re out to save money, this is definitely not the way to go, because I’m pretty sure you could buy a huge V8 pickup truck and it would be less expensive to fill up than a hydrogen car. So this is another point to electric vehicles since they can actually end up saving you quite a bit of money.
Could These Vehicles Really be the Future?
So now comes the big question: Are fuel cell cars the future of automotive transportation? They could be part of the future, but I strongly doubt they will ever be the only alternative to a gas-powered vehicle. So no, I don’t believe these cars will ever replace EV’s, although they might be able to join them. In order to really compete with EV’s, these cars would need to improve quite a bit. They would need a better infrastructure (which will take many years), a really exciting feature to make consumers pick this over EV’s, make this technology more affordable (both the vehicles and hydrogen), make these hydrogen powertrains as snappy as an electric vehicle’s, and perhaps give them a huge edge in range compared to an E.V. While having a superior range would be great, one area in which I personally think these vehicles could really shine is in the trucking industry.
The potential for an insanely long range, mixed with the fast refuel times, would be just like gasoline trucks are today. Although upcoming electric trucks promise to carry out over 500 miles of range, plugging these gargantuan batteries into even the fastest chargers to date would still take a few hours. And this is without considering the strain that would be put on those batteries by constant fill-ups to 100%. Overall, I think that hydrogen fuel cell cars have some sort of spot to fill in the future. If enough effort is put into this technology, I believe it has the potential to become an alternative to electric vehicles. The concept is a great idea on paper, but it just needs a little bit of help to become a mass-produced reality.
This news was originally published at Medium