Has Tesla Killed the Fuel Cell Vehicle?
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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.
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?