Has Tesla Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle?

AUG 5 2013 BY DAVID MURRAY 45

Tesla - Enough Sway To Now Be Listed On The NASDAQ 100

Tesla – Enough Sway To Now Be Listed On The NASDAQ 100

I remember 10 years ago in 2003, George W. Bush was making a speech on television.  He was pushing his agenda for fuel cell vehicles and he made a statement that these advances mean that a child born that day could be driving a fuel cell vehicle as their first car.

President Bush Filling GM's HydroGen3 GM Fuel Cell Vehicle In May 2005(via Paul Morse courtesy White House)

President Bush Filling GM’s HydroGen3 GM Fuel Cell Vehicle In May 2005(via Paul Morse courtesy White House)

I looked over at my baby girl who was just weeks old, and this really meant something.  We had already gone through the birth and death of the electric car.  And since battery range was still an issue with electric cars at that time, I had high hopes that hydrogen would solve all of our problems: Oil addiction, air pollution, global warming, national security, etc.  But most of all, I just couldn’t wait to leave gasoline behind because it seems so low-tech.

As the years went buy and I began to read more and more about the fuel cell technology, I began to lose faith in it.  Not only faith in Bush’s forecast, but in the technology itself.  But there was something else bothering me, something deeper.

Watching the new generation of electric vehicles emerge, one lesson learned is that green doesn’t sell very well.  Its hard to get people to buy something totally different and out of their comfort zone just so that a person can be “green.”  I’ve come to realize that, while a certain percentage of people will buy something like that, most will not.

Screen Cap From Latest Toyota Prius Plug-In Ad Campaign

Screen Cap From Latest Toyota Prius Plug-In Ad Campaign

Toyota sells a lot of Prii with the green message, but I think honestly they are selling those cars despite the ads, not because of them. The Prius is a decently priced car that will save a lot of people money on gas.  Everyone I know that owns a Prius has bought it with the specific goal of saving money at the pump.

So that raises the question.  If you can’t sell a fuel-cell vehicle based on its “green credentials” then what benefit does it have to the consumer? With most electric or plug-in hybrids on the road right now, the fact that electricity is so much cheaper plays a big role in the purchasing decision. Just like with the Prius, it gives consumers a real reason to make the switch.

Honda FCX Clarity

Honda FCX Clarity

Since a fuel cell vehicle is very expensive, I thought it would be appropriate to compare the best fuel cell vehicle on the market, a Honda FCX Clarity with a Tesla Model-S.

  • Range – Lets face it, the main advantage of a fuel cell vehicle over a battery electric would be range.  So where does that stand now?  The FCX Clarity has a range of 240 miles. The low-end Tesla has a range of 208 Miles and the high end has a range of 265.  So I’d say the range is pretty much a tie.
  • Refueling time – How long it takes to refuel is important when taking longer trips.  According to Honda, refueling takes “A few minutes.” So its probably similar to gasoline.  Tesla drivers can stop at a supercharger for about half-an-hour or do a battery swap in 90 seconds.  Tesla wins here.
  • Infrastructure – Obviously the above statement about the battery swap is only valid if there is infrastructure, which right now is pretty much zip.  But so are hydrogen filling stations at the moment, so it is still fair from a hypothetical point of view.  But the Tesla doesn’t need a battery swap station or even a supercharger to refuel. Most drivers will refuel at home and use an ever increasing number of public charging stations.  Tesla can even use a 110V household outlet if it comes down to it.  Tesla wins by a long-shot.
  • Price of Vehicle – This is tricky.  You can’t actually buy an FCX Clarity.  You can lease one for $600 per month, or you can lease a Tesla for $1,051 per month.  While it would seem that the FCX Clarity wins, it is really hard to say. Its obvious the Clarity is being leased at a huge loss and Tesla sells their cars at a profit. Experts estimate the Clarity costs $140,000 to build.  If they wanted to make a profit, it would have to sell for much more than that.  Assuming a 20% gross margin, you’re looking at a price tag of around $168,000.  A Tesla starts at $69,900 without any federal tax incentive.  I’m not factoring in any incentives at this point because in a hypothetical future these will be long gone.  But just to be clear, the FCX Clarity would actually get a $12,000 federal incentive if you could buy one.  But since you can’t buy one, it doesn’t matter.  Ultimately, if we’re talking about a car being sold at a profit and not some sort of compliance car, the Tesla wins on cost.
Does The Tesla Model S Displace The Fuel Cell Movement?

Does The Tesla Model S Displace The Fuel Cell Movement?

  • Price of Fuel – Okay, so the FCX Clarity has a 4kg tank and hydrogen costs around $4.49 per kg.  My math says the Clarity costs around 7.5 cents per mile.  For the Tesla it varies greatly by where you live.  In Idaho it could be as cheap as 1.7 cents per mile or in Hawaii it could be as high as 9.38 cents per mile.   Most states fall within 2 to 3 cents per mile.  So Tesla definitely wins this one.
  • Performance – The base model-S I’m using in the comparison does the 0-60 run in 5.9 seconds (and the higher end versions, even faster) and the FCX Clarity does 8.5 seconds.  Tesla wins this one, hands down.
  • Green Credentials – This is something that could be argued from either side.  I’m not going to take a stand other than to say that either one is likely better than a gasoline car by a long shot.  But I’d say they are probably similar in environmental performance.  It would depend greatly on where the electricity for the Tesla was generated and how the hydrogen was produced for the FCX Clarity.
  • Availability – Lets face it.  The Tesla Model-S is available now to anyone who can afford one.  The FCX Clarity is a very limited production and there is no chance that’s going to change within the next few years, if ever.
  • Maintenance – This is questionable.  I’ve heard some naysayers say that the fuel cell stack will have to be replaced periodically on such a car.  But I’ll go ahead and take this with a grain of salt because we’ve all heard the naysayers make similar comments about batteries in electric cars that we know aren’t true.  So unless somebody offers some proof on this, I’m going to go ahead and say the cars are a tie.
A Tesla Model S Gets A Battery Swap

A Tesla Model S Gets A Battery Swap

So there we have it.  The Tesla Model-S wins or at least ties in every category.  While some people will point out that the fuel cell technology will eventually get cheaper, my response to that is this – They’ve been saying that for 30 years. And the battery technology will also get cheaper and we’ve seen this first hand over the last few years.  Within a few years Tesla will have a cheaper vehicle on the road for half the cost of a Model-S.  Will fuel cells ever catch up with that?

There really is no advantage to a fuel cell car over an electric car that I can see, whether you fall into the category of being a treehugger, or maybe a geek that likes high tech cars, or the person who doesn’t want to buy middle eastern oil, or just the guy who likes to save money at the pump.  And this is why I say that Tesla has killed the fuel cell vehicle.

Having said that, I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts about using a small fuel cell as a secondary power source in a vehicle similar to the Chevy Volt or BMW i3.  As a backup power source, could it be economical?  What would be some of the advantages?

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45 Comments on "Has Tesla Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle?"

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I hope so as Fuel cell as inefficiency stamped all over it at
the time of hydrogen production / transport vs using electricity directly.

Batteries are getting better, super caps will also shine and fuel cells – let just say it is a futile attempt to keep the status quo for as long as the petrol companies can make some sort of extended life out of it.

It’s just terrible that I can drive my Volt on Sunshine 🙂 made at home.

So sorry but gas will be king as long as you live. Convenient cheap and some new technology is allowing gas production thru heat free chemical reaction so in the future no more messy petroleum plants heating and distilling fuel. Maybe in some distant Star Trek future will gas no longer be king. Plus we have tons of new oil here inTexas ad more discovered every day. I think it is far better to create cleaner burning gas than the fairy tale do electric vehicles

Either way, I think the fuel cell operates like a range extender. The base propulsion is still electric. I don’t think it makes sense as a low power range extender for a “large” batttery EREV like the Volt or i3. I do believe your are directional correct with thinking of a different lower power source being a viable solution long term. Something that can provide significant energy (30-100kWh) and average power (15-30kW) at some advantage over current battery tech could have a place. Maybe a flow battery or other quickly rechargable/replaceable energy storage device. It will nee a significant cost advantage. Batteries are already small enough and energy dense enough.

HFC was never alive so crediting Tesla with its death is unwarranted fanboying.

I think they point here is valid though, when talking about how the technology is perceived by the general public. Most of those people never knew HFC was a pie in the sky, but cars like the Tesla Model S might help them see there is no need for that technology to ever come to fruition, without needing to know the why.

Agreed with Dan. Too much fudging and cherry-picking also. I’m no fan of hydrogen, and IMHO the technology has enough shortcomings to never take off indeed. Still, if for some obscure reason one wants to pitch a Honda Clarity against a Tesla S, I think it should at least be done fairly. E.g. refueling time: no Tesla swapping station exists, so none can achieve that 90-second number. Only if and when this changes, hydrogen wins. If swapping somehow must be considered regardless, then its cost should as well. 60$ for 200-some miles makes for a much higher cost per mile than H2. Infrastructure: there are about the same number of supercharger sites as hydrogen stations today, a dozen or so and growing slowly. Tie. Obviously EVs win big time when accounting for the possibility of charging at home or pretty much everywhere a socket exists (even though, frankly, I wouldn’t consider charging a Model S at 120V as something even remotely practical). Vehicle price: as an end-user, I don’t care much what production costs might be, especially when it’s mostly speculation. The fact remains, if I wanted an FCX (I don’t), I could lease one for about half the price… Read more »

Hydrogen Infrastructure:
According to the DOE site http://www.afdc.energy.gov/fuels/hydrogen_locations.html there are 10 public hydrogen stations, 8 of which are in Southern California, one in Northern California and 1 in South Carolina. It is impossible to drive a hydrogen vehicle from LA to SF using public stations. Additionally, the California Fuel Cell Partnership’s site http://cafcp.org/stationmap shows an additional 19 stations “In development” and 13 “Private or Demonstration”. However, none of these will allow travel between Northern and Southern California.

Supercharger Infrastructure:
The Tesla web site http://www.teslamotors.com/supercharger shows 16 supercharger locations active today. You can drive from LA to SF on I-5 or US-101 and you can also drive to Tahoe or Las Vegas, both significant destinations for California drivers. By the end of the year Tesla expects it to be possible to traverse the entire west coast and east coast and maybe even from coast to coast using Superchargers.

The most important difference between hydrogen infrastructure and supercharger infrastructure is that you have to use a public station for all your hydrogen filling while SuperCharging is only needed for long distance travel. A BEV can be charged at home or at work today.

I think HFC’s death announcement would be premature.
Battery costs seem to be stable, where a breakthrough is needed.
If HFC costs could be reduced by improving the performance of the fuel cell, it might make sense in the future.
The infrastructure is definitely a problem, but then again, so is electricity, if even 50% of all cars sold were plugins, the electrical demand would cause big problems.

Not really.

The rate of ev adoption will not be faster that the reaction time of power generators.
With time of use pricing, much of the energy wasted at night would be used, meaning much charging with zero extra generating.

And in countries with refineries, power use would go down, as massive amounts of electricity are needing in the process.

Basically, gas cars use more electricity per mile than evs.

The costs of batteries are dropping, if slowly. A beak trough is more than welcome but not needed, as evidenced by the success of the Leaf and Model S.

The costs of HFC is VERY high. If it is dropping, it is not nearly enough to catch up with the slowly progressing battery technology. A break through is essential for this to ever become an option. A major one. Or multiple smaller break troughs.

Hey, if they can get the technology in order and sort out the supply problem, I’m all for it. But until then I am more than satisfied with what BEVs offer TODAY.

The main point of the article should be that “green” in and of itself it doesn’t sell, and Tesla readily acknowledges this and accepts it in the way they produce and market their cars. By their own words, the Model S is not a green car; it’s a performance sedan.

CNBC interviewed Elon Musk and asked him, “Who’s buying your car, the people who are trying to save the planet or the people who are trying to save at the pump?”. Elon simply responded, “The people who want the best car in the world.”

This is the reason for Tesla’s success, and for the ineptitude of the fuel cell industry.

I can’t think of an American since William Steinway, who has the knack for branding Musk does.

The Volt proves any dual fuel vehicle is better than a single fuel one. In some parts of NJ, after Hurricane Sandy people could not buy gas because stations either ran out or had no electricity for the pumps to operate. Before the storm hit, I filled up my Volt with gas and of course had it plugged in. After the storm passed I lost electricity for 3 days but my Volt kept running on gas. Three days later, when gas shortages began, my electricity came back so my Volt was all electric again.

Having a fuel cell range extender is only viable if it cost less, weighs less and takes up less space than current ICE range extender used in the Volt.

NPNS!
Volt#671

Of course, when batteries become more energy dense, you would be able to run your entire house for a week off your car.

The real solution here is solar. Mark my words, 5 years from now (10 max), most people will be buying houses with solar panels built-in, that provide enough power to go off-grid, and power their entire home and charge their electric car. It can be done today. …Tesla’s super-chargers are already partly solar, plan to go full solar.

volt is the best car to have if you have regular commutes and go on occasional distant trips, although it would be amazing if the volts electric range was double like 70-80

Elon Musk may very well come up with a fuel cell car, if there is a way to make money off of it… so I wouldn’t say for so sure that its either/or… (even though this is not the point of your article). 🙂 It will be on his terms.

Elon Musk has no intention nor desire to build a fuel cell car.

Elon has openly and repeatedly mocked fuel cells as a deadend, false promise technology for automotive use.

Musk’s term was “fool cell” as I recall.

A very thought provoking article. I would say that unless there exists some game changer technology in a lab somewhere, where Hydrogen can be produced very cheaply at almost any location, then the Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicle will not happen for a very long time, if not ever. I certainly like to keep an open mind about it. Hydrogen is plentiful, but not by itself. If a way is found to crack Hydrogen from whatever it is joined with, and put Hydrogen stations anywhere on the globe, then they may have something. But the Honda Clarity is for all intents and purposes, the state of the art as of now. And it can’t light a candle next to a Tesla Model S. I’m going with Tesla for the win on this.

What will it take for EVs to be very popular mainstream vehicles? One thing: Better bang per buck batteries. That’s it. Everything else about my Leaf is fine (including, for me, the battery range). We don’t really need a massive charging infrastructure, with points on every other street corner. Quick chargers on highways and a few around each metro area, combined with in-home overnight charging would make a 200 mile/charge car very livable. And batteries have already come down in price a lot and are continuing to do so. What would it take for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be very popular mainstream options? Dramatically lower vehicle production costs plus the installation of a new and very expensive fueling infrastructure, plus greater range. Once EVs are routinely in the 200+ miles/charge range and they’re much cheaper to buy and refuel, HFCVs will need much better range to compete. Is it possible HFCVs will be mainstream-level viable in the next 10 or 20 years? Sure. But there’s no way I’d bet on things playing out that way. The old joke about fusion power — it’s been 20 years away for the last 50 years — is more and more applicable to… Read more »

Hello,

Has Tesla Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle? (Fuel Cell? What a joke!!)
OF COURSE!!
Thanks TESLA (Elon)
Sun, solar panels, batteries!!
This is all we need!!!

Good road with EV.

That’s why Musk founded SolarCity too.

The biggest thing going for the EV’s right now is you can plug in at home or at work or at a supercharger for free with Tesla. The hydrogen car is you have to go to a central gas station and most likely hydrogen is not going to be cheap most likely five or even seven dollars equal to a gallon of gas. Also once they trick everyone into killing off the electric car they are going to stick it to us with high hydrogen prices.

I even made the trick behind hydrogen where they throw the wool over our eyes a plot of a science fiction storyline I’m working on.

The only good aspects of the concept of a hydrogen vehicle are zero harmful emissions, and the ability to extract hydrogen using relatively unpredictable renewable electricity sources. The idea is to be basically an energy storage/buffer where hydrogen is extracted whenever the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, then transported to fueling stations for vehicles.

The fundamental problems with the hydrogen vehicle concept are the source of the hydrogen (big problem), the efficiency of the fuel cells (fundamental limits), and the multiple steps to end-use (poor efficiency over the entire process from hydrogen extraction to spinning the tires).

The only question I find intriguing about the whole fiaso is whether the poor “well-to-wheel” efficiency could possibly be offset by utilizing wind and solar in that manner (near perfect utilization) as compared to using those sources directly to the grid and requiring load balancing, etc.

http://insideevs.com/ev-vs-cng-vs-fcv-vs-ice-part-ii-environmental/
The environmental problem with hydrogen is transportation.

Another good aspect of hydrogen vehicles is a relatively fast refill time and a relatively large range. But that said, I don’t think they will be economical given the costs.

No. Nothing can completely kill the fuel cell vehicle as long as vested interests like oil & gas drillers keep backing them.

But it is the GM Volt that does a better job of killing off fuel cell technology. The Volt has the cheap EV driving costs for ordinary commuting and the fast-refuel time and long range for long distance driving all at a cost of less than $40K. The fuel cell vehicles can’t compete with that.

RIP

I have a couple of minor corrections to David Murray’s post:
1) the Honda Clarity FCX can only be leased (3-years max) and can not be purchased
2) Hawaii just reduced electric rates for DC Quick Chargers
http://green.autoblog.com/2013/07/15/hawaii-heco-utilities-will-cut-charging-rates-to-encourage-evs/

My view on Fuel Cells is they are similar Gas Turbines, in they make lots of sense for large scale deployments, but question their economical sense for a constrained mobile platform. For large vehicles, fuel cells must compete with natural gas power which currently very economical and has similar green-house gas footprint. Today >90% hydrogen is extracted by processing steam with natural gas allowing for better management of emissions, but requiring additional infrastructure.

PS: Good reference for a gasturbine powered car sis Jay Leno’s Garage (he has a couple, great power, but less useful driving experience): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSBpd1GFUP0

As soon as battery prices go down; that’s really going to change the game. Right now it seems like every manufacturer uses a different brand of batteries.

How about the 4.2v cells instead of the 3.7v cells? Any potential there?

So much for Bush’s “Hydrogen Highway”. My son learned to drive and passed his drivers test in an electric vehicle in 2010. My daughter will do the same. As manufacturers are now selling EVs for less than $30,000 we see Hydrogen vehicles slowly approaching a milestone price point of only $100,000.

Easy answer…

What has a better infrastructure, and which has more units on the open road?

A couple additions: Price of Vehicle: Can’t make a valid comparison. Tesla uses mass produced batteries and has spent a lot of money developing a high tech production line to assemble the batteries into their battery management system. This is also necessary to bring the cost down. Guaranteed that Honda does not have anything similar for the Clarity, all production here is low rate production and thus much more expensive. Hard to say what the Clarity would cost if produced in the same numbers as Tesla, but I’d guess that it would still be more expensive. Maintenance: I’d give this to Tesla. GM and Honda have a partnership for fuel cell development. GM was claiming around 80k miles on their latest generation fuel cells and expected that to increase to 120k miles by 2015. UTC is the state-of-the-art in durability with fuel cell bus units now well over 10,000 hours of use, but these don’t really count as they are too expensive to be consider for cars. Judging by Tesla’s battery management success with the Roadster, I would expect their cars will still have useful range past 120k miles. Note also that as fuel cells degrade, the voltage will decrease… Read more »
First off, producing the hydrogen fuel is not green, not at all (Hydrogen has to be taken out of something and this process is where it loses big time. If hydrogen was a source in and of itself, like water, this story would be totally different, but, it simply is not something that you can gather, it has to be extracted from something that contains hydrogen AND something else, and this is where it is a fail). The only benefit with hydrogen is at the tailpipe, but, just like with gasoline, don’t look back there at where it is made. (Every argument you hear about whether or not electrics really are as green as they say, they do not tell you about what it takes to produce gasoline from crude oil, nor include oil spills in their argument.) We’ve been hearing promises about hydrogen, but they are always in the future. Electrics are the best most green cars you can get. Battery tech advancement has been suppressed by big oil buying the technology and holding on to the patents, not producing anything. But, where NiMH batteries were killed, various Lithium technologies have emerged and are progressing. Also, supercapacitors, which can… Read more »

I had a quick scan through the above comments I don’t think anyone had already mentioned that Tesla say that if you own a Tesla car you use their charging stations for free for life. Their charging stations are solar powered as well aren’t they. What is the cost of charging a fuel cell ? Also fuel cells can use all fuel types.

once upon a time making horse shoes was a good earner

I am curious why there are no studies of hydrogen carbon footprint. It must be much dirtie than coal.

Hydrogen fuel cells are not the only fuels cell types out there. Look at the work of George Olah, with his reversible fuel cell that consumes/produces methane. Methane avoids so many of the pitfalls of hydrogen.