LA Times: “Will Fuels Cells Make Battery Electric Cars Obsolete?”


Automakers Now Trying to Prove That Hydrogen is INdeed Safe

Automakers Now Trying to Prove That Hydrogen is Indeed Safe

At the 2013 Tokyo Motor and the 2013 LA Auto Show, several fuel cell vehicles hit the stage.  With those appearances again came the promise that mass production hydrogen vehicles are right around the corner.

GM Celebrates Almost 40 Years Of Not Building A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle In This Slide Released Previously

GM Celebrates Almost 40 Years Of Not Building A Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle In This Slide Released Previously

John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America, told the LA Times that it’s a “coming out party for hydrogen.”

Hyundai’s fuel cell vehicle will launch in extremely limited numbers in 2014, while Toyota and Honda say 2015 will be the year that their FCEVs arrive in mass.

Problem is, mass means somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple hundred vehicles from all 3 automakers combined.  That’s not mass.

Regardless, the less-than-a-handful of automakers interested in fuel cell technology insist that the arrival of the FCEV will spell the end of the EV.

Bill Fay, general manager of Toyota’s U.S. sales division, says the automaker’s first production FCEV “has the same potential as the first Prius.”  The Prius is today’s best-selling hybrid and is in fact the #1 selling vehicle in all of California.  Does Toyota think its FCEV will achieve that status?

As the LA Times writes:

“The global automakers believe cars powered by fuel cells represent the best path to building the zero-emission vehicles now demanded by regulators in California and many other states and, increasingly, by consumers. Using hydrogen to create electricity, fuel cells combine the best of electric and gasoline cars without the downsides, the automakers say. They drive like electric cars — quietly, with tons of off-the-line power — but can be refueled just like gasoline-powered cars.”

Refueled where?  At the dozen or so stations in the US?

President Bush Filling GM's HydroGen3 GM Fuel Cell Vehicle In May 2005

President Bush Filling GM’s HydroGen3 GM Fuel Cell Vehicle In May 2005

The LA Times add:

“The challenge: Producing them cheaply enough to entice consumers and building enough hydrogen fueling stations to keep them on the road. Initially, the cars are expected to cost more than comparable gasoline-powered and electric vehicles, though they probably will qualify for government incentives to buyers. The sticker prices are expected to come down if automakers can sell the cars in volume.”

Yes, the sticker prices will fall over time, just as they already have with electric vehicles, but FCEVs are years behind EVs to market and, as such, will always be racing to catch up on price point.

Isn’t hydrogen explosive and dangerous?  As the LA Times explains, Matt McClory, one of the principal engineers of the Toyota fuel cell vehicle, says Toyota has fired rifle bullets into its hydrogen tanks and can’t get them to explode.

Quoting McClory:

“The smaller-caliber bullets would just bounce off the tank. It took a 50-caliber armor-piercing bullet to penetrate the tank, and it then just left a hole and the gas leaked out.”

That’s fine, but trying to convince the general public that hydrogen is safe is not going to be easy, especially when most still believe lithium-ion batteries are unsafe.  With an FCEV, you’ve got both a hydrogen tank and a lithium-ion battery on board.  Good luck convincing the masses that’s somehow safe.

Hyundai FCEV

Hyundai FCEV

Mike O’Brien, Hyundai’s vice president of product and corporate planning, see this “Hindenburg” perception as a true challenge for automakers.  As O’Brien says:

“The car meets the same crash standards of any other car we sell.  But only miles on the road, and people in the seats of these vehicles, will overcome those perceptions.”

So, thousands of vehicles will need to rack up millions of miles to prove the safety of the FCEV.  Only then will consumers deem them safe.  A couple hundred vehicles on US roads isn’t enough to prove the safety of the FCEV, so the EV will carry on its reign unchallenged by the FCEV for at least a decade or two.

In 2020, we’ll revisit this topic.  By then there may well be a few thousand FCEVs on the roads, compared to a couple million EVs.  In 2020, we bet a few automakers will continue to claim FCEVs are the future.  Those same automakers will be selling hundreds of thousands of EVs every year.  Oh the irony.

Source: LA Times

Category: General


49 responses to "LA Times: “Will Fuels Cells Make Battery Electric Cars Obsolete?”"
  1. mustang_sallad says:

    Pointing out the “safety issue” (hindenberg photo is a little over the top) is a distraction from what I see as the main detractor for H2 vehicles – the fact that’s a lot less energy efficient than an EV from well-to-wheels, which goes hand in hand with the fact that the owner of an H2 vehicle won’t benefit from any of the reduced operating costs that justify the upfront premium of an EV.

    1. BraveLittleToaster says:

      Considering how many people drive pickup trucks for no good reason at all, I don’t think efficiency is particularly high on their list.

      Other stumbling blocks however, will make people fail to see the point:

      1. The miles-per-gallon(?) of Hydrogen is about 3 times better than gasoline – for a fuel that’s at least 3 times as expensive. In other words, there’s no financial incentive in terms of operating cost. Right now (not “someday”) there is already a clear financial benefit to driving a Leaf over a similar hatchback, which is only getting better with time. In 5 or 10 years’ time, I have confidence that “economy car” will be synonymous with “electric”, for better or for worse.

      2. When they first come to market, they’re going to be even more expensive than electrics were at their outset. Who knows if their cost will come down as quickly, but considering how the Tesla Roadster was panned as an expensive novelty toy for the granola-eating rich, I expect we can see the same reception.

      3. Hydrogen’s green credentials are weak, because it’s basically just like burning natural gas in an ICE in terms of the pollution it produces, unless you’re willing to pay about 8x as much for fuel to make it from water electrolysys. So it’s hardly going to be a hit with the very people who are willing to pay extra for the environmental benefits.

      4. The fact is, that the only benefit that hydrogen has over electric is its refuelling time. If you can even find the fuel at all, that is. There’s already been so much progress with electric car charging infrastructure, that it’s going to be a long time before hydrogen *can* catch up, if it ever will.

      1. Jeff Williams says:

        Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
        $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)

  2. Assaf says:


    Can you add a few words about CO2 footprint? I mean, that’s the main reason why governments are pouring billions to support alternative-fuel vehicles.

    But according to the California Air Resources Board (CARB), hydrogen fuel currently has a CO2 footprint higher than most fossil fuels, regardless of process (, scroll to p. 6-7).
    That’s without counting the added footprint of establishing a stand-alone national infrastructure network for this fuel.

    As long as no one comes up with a viable low-footprint H2 production technology, the fuel-cell approach should take a far lower priority than EVs which can directly convert renewable power (and the majority of capacity growth in US grids now is renewable), and rely on very minor modifications to the existing electrical infrastructure.

    There are other aspects of course, that you discuss well, but we should *never* neglect the global-warming aspect which is job #1.

    1. Eric Loveday says:

      That’s why your here Assaf. Our readers will see your comment and your source, which should be viewed as proof, but I’m sure it will still be disputed.

      1. Assaf says:

        That – assuming people read the talkbacks. There are rumours about people living in caves who only read the story itself 🙂

    2. Anthony says:

      Am I reading this PDF Right?

      Crude oil supplied to CA and refined in-state: 99.18 gCO2e/MJ
      Electricity (existing mix): 124.10 gCO2e/MJ
      Electricity (marginal mix): 104.71 gCO2e/MJ
      H2 Central Reforming from NG (liquification and re-gasification): 142.20
      H2 Central Reforming from NG (w/o liq. and regas): 133.00

      This seems to be indicating that electricity and hydrogen both have higher CO2 intensity than crude.

      1. Brian says:

        I believe you’re just looking at the emissions to refine crude into gasoline, which says nothing about burning the gasoline…

        1. Assaf says:

          No, it’s both together. There’s some overhead not accounted for (some is), but that can be said about the EV side as well (charging losses). The 99.18 number is for refining, transport and burning liquid petroleum fuels combined.

          However, the overall energy efficiency of EVs is >2x that of the best ICE hybrids and >3x that of ICE compacts, therefore the state-average overall per-mile footprint of EVs is substantially lower.

          Additionally, the effect of off-peak charging is not incorporated, meaning that this official electricity footprint calculation essentially assumes at-peak charging.

          anyway, looking forward: EVs are getting cleaner because the grid is getting cleaner pretty fast nowadays.

          But right now there is no similar high-volume roadmap for making the H2 footprint cleaner. Hence it is (AFAIU) a less-promising CO2 mitigation pathway. That’s besides the infrastructure synergy issue, which is actually key here.

          The real danger is, that CO2 talk is already relegated to the fringes of alternative-vehicle chatter in the press. It’s all about who is more cool and who’s winning.

          If for some reason H2 vehicles score an upset and catch up to EVs (which many prognosticators still prognosticate will happen), no one will care about cleaning the H2 production pipeline unless the government steps in, facing huge opposition from huge corporates and their bought-over politicians who will whine about “Big Government wanting to return us to foreign oil”.

          OTOH, on the electricity-production side the technology and political tide has already turned. Cleaning the grid has become a mainstream, even bipartisan policy and even ALEC could not get any headway in trying to slow it down. So EVs have a guaranteed pathway to lower emissions, while H2 vehicles possibly the opposite.

          1. James says:

            No one ever bothers to factor wars fought over oil into the oil footprint, so double its impact, then subtract all the people who have died and are no longer driving cars.

            1. Al says:

              Yeah…our government likes to play “bate and switch” with our supposed principals. First we force young Americans to die for oil because its a matter of national security…then when were producing enough to meet U.S demand,it becomes just another world commodity. Kin’da like “free speech”.In the civilian arena its a civil right,but in the “government arena” its legal bribery,and as long as you label anything a tax,its legal. Bate and switch semantics. Life,like vigilance are both pretty cheep for humans.

      2. JakeY says:

        “This seems to be indicating that electricity and hydrogen both have higher CO2 intensity than crude.”
        That’s per unit of energy. Factor in the higher MPGe of the EV (the EPA number already factors in charging losses) and you end up much better in a EV.

    3. Nelson says:

      “As long as no one comes up with a viable low-footprint H2 production technology…”

      You mean like this?

      You still can’t fill up a fuel-cell vehicle at home easily or cheaply. When I can fill the tank with water from my hose and have the car split hydrogen out using the power of the sun I’ll think about getting a fuel-cell car.


      1. Assaf says:

        Yes, I mean like this, but reaching the level of a viable mass-market technology rather than a cutting-edge academic lab experiment.

        If something like this pans out quickly, it could be a game-changer (at least from the CO2-footprint aspect).

      2. Eric Fisher (@ErockFishe) says:

        I understand that it takes almost three time the solar energy to power a hydrogen fuel cell car as compared to an electric car.

    4. Mark H says:

      Because hydrogen has less energy per unit volume, distribution costs are higher than those for gasoline. Most hydrogen is produced either on-site or near point of use, usually at large industrial sites. Distribution arrives by pipeline, high-pressure tube trailers, or liquefied hydrogen tankers. Pipeline is the least expensive way to distribute hydrogen; the last two, while more expensive, can be transported using different modes of transportation – truck, railcar, ship, or barge.

      Hydrogen’s biggest problem is the availability of platinum, the catalyst material in today’s fuel cells. It isn’t just the fact that it’s expensive, it’s that it’s not there. Right now it takes 60 grams of platinum per fuel cell. The entire world supply of platinum wouldn’t be enough for the cars produced in the U.S. alone.

      Two final points. After all that, it is just a range extender. It is still an EV. And I bet we don’t wait till 2020 till Eric talks about it again (buddy).

      1. Assaf says:

        Thanks for educating me about the platinum. I didn’t know they require so much of it. Do you have a link?

        And yes, you are right, the FCEV can (and should) be recast as an EREV (i.e., by adding a plug-in socket to it). Will actually make it more market-viable, much as it will hurt the current party line from its makers 🙂

    5. Jeff D says:

      Not only does the production of hydrogen have CO2 issues, but it also has methane issues which is an even more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2.

  3. David Murray says:

    FCEV is dead on arrival, as far as I’m concerned. They offer the consumer no benefits over a gasoline car except for being “green.” They offer none of the benefits of a plug-in vehicle. Yet, they cost more money than either kind of vehicle and also cost more to operate. Fueling infrastructure is non-existent. What will be the consumer’s reason to purchase such a vehicle?

    1. Foo says:

      And they’ve not even green… see above.

    2. Ocean Railroader says:

      I remember programs about how they where going to flood the market with hydrogen cars by 2003 and it never happened. I really think this is the oil companies or someone else trying to exert control over us.

      Also what could have single handily killed the hydrogen car is if Tesla has free super charging for their $40,000 dollar car while hydrogen costs $5.00 dollars a gallon while when it first comes to market it costs $20.00 a gallon that alone would put a lot of stress on it.

      I think ethanol powered cars are in the same boat as hydrogen in that I think a very large EV industry could destroy the needs for massive of amounts of Corn ethanol which is blamed for taking more oil to make it then the power it gives back.

  4. Al says:

    The ICE that wouldn’t die! I wounder how much the parts manufacture side of these cars Company’s are kicking into this research.These efforts don’t make sense to me.

  5. Michael says:

    I’ll only add one thing at this time, because I think there are a lot of reasons, many already specified against FVEVs. I live in Minneapolis, and during our normal winter there are many mornings below 0F and frequently days where the high does not go above 0F. I believe fuel cells have significant problems maintain any or significant capacity when it is bitterly cold. The wikipedia page for the Honda FCX ( shows an operating temperature as low as -20C, which is only -4F. For those of you on the coasts that will sounds sufficient, but we just at 7 of our last 11 mornings near or below that mark. My Leaf works just fine at that temp. I would never get a car that can’t operate for significant chunks of our winter.

  6. Bloggin says:

    Hydroven has a few issues it won’t be able to overcome:

    1. Hydrogen costs more than $5/gal equivalent, when electricity is about .80 cents

    2. The max range of a hydrogen vehicle based on space for the tank is about 300 miles, which is where the first gen EVs cap out at today, before next gen that will launch in a year or so.

    3. Fuel Cell technology price drop will lag behind EVs by a wide margin, with current EV set for another price drop with battery pricing on the decline.

    1. Spec9 says:

      I think hydrogen is more about a $3/gallon equivalent.

      1. Eric Fisher (@ErockFishe) says:

        I think electricity is about $1/gallon equivalent

        1. Bill G. says:

          I calculate 38 cents per gallon equivalent using California’s EV-B rate of about $0.038/kwh between 12:00 and 7:00am and assuming 35mpg in a gas car and 3.5 miles/kwh in an EV.

  7. Dan Frederiksen says:

    As eye brow raising as it is to have hydrogen in a car under Mariana trough pressure that’s an insignificant issue in the difficulties for HFC.

    The logic is fairly simple. Battery drive is very simple and the only cost item is the battery which will soon enough be around 2500$ for a pack of moderate range. Charging will be around 10 minutes or less. How can a very complex 3 times less efficient drivetrain with no infrastructure ever compete with that. Any step to lower the price will be matched by battery cost reduction that’s way ahead. It will never catch up.

    BUT, there is a way fuel cells could become relevant. If instead of hydrogen you use a liquid synthetic hydrocarbon fuel. Then you take away the complexity and losses of compression, storage and transfer. That could be quite interesting for range extenders and long haul vehicles. It would still be much less efficient and simple than battery drive but would have merit for certain applications.

  8. Bret says:

    Fool Cells?

    The oil companies would love to sell expensive hydrogen, instead of consumers recharging their cars inexpensively from grid power or solar panels. Now, they just have to put multi-million dollar charging stations on every corner. It doesn’t sound like a very good plan to me.

    1. Mike says:

      I agree, this is one of the primary reasons I think FCEV is a poor choice for the future (the short-term issue, as previously mentioned, is the large carbon footprint of the fuel). Assuming that the logical path for the future is distributed energy production (via solar and wind), EVs should provide nearly zero-carbon transportation for society. Why would we want to relinquish control (again) to large energy corporations that sell us the fuel? Sure, we could produce the hydrogen at home via renewable energy, but why? This future may be nirvana for the the corporations, but not the people.

  9. Lou Grinzo says:

    HFCV’s are, indeed, a stupendously bad idea, and I could not agree more with the prior posts that lay out the grisly details.

    Right now, we’re in a race to lock-in consumers to the next automotive technology: EVs or FCs. If EVs win, it will cost the oil companies many billions of dollars. Car companies win no matter which tech. comes out on top. So, why are the car companies and state governments pushing hydrogen so hard? It couldn’t possibly be due to a financial incentive, could it…?

    1. Eric Fisher says:

      I think it is partly because Nissan got such a big jump on the other automakers which has also given Nissan much publicity. I think the other auto makers hope the same will happen for them if they get the lead in this type of vehicle.

  10. SeattleTeslaGuy says:

    The problem I see with FCEVs is that there is no reasonable infrastructure bootstrap model. With BEVs, you can charge at home so even if there were no public chargers, it was still viable for a significant chunk of the population’s driving needs. As more BEVs are bought, businesses see the benefit of installing chargers and the availability of chargers causes more people to consider a BEV. It’s a virtuous cycle. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of really sexy BEVs out there as well.

    However, FCEVs need forward investment of fueling stations before even the early adopters venture into the market. I don’t know the costs of a hydrogen fueling station but I have seen estimates that a European network would cost 5 times an equivalent plug-in EV network. Given the huge lead of the plug-in infrastructure, I don’t see the virtuous cycle happening with hydrogen without a huge up-front investment.

    1. scott moore says:

      Clearly you have not heard about the GE “home gas cracker and compressor”, that fuels your FCV from the natural gas line. They have established a future price of $1000.

  11. Dr. Kenneth Noisewater says:

    Have fuel cells even gotten to $0.06-$0.10/W yet? $1/W fuel cells are a nonstarter for home use.

    Also, H2 fuel cells are a nonstarter, the only viable fuel cells IMO are SOFCs that accept hydrocarbons (and H2 or ammonia) and can convert them efficiently to electric power, say 20kW per gallon of gas. If they can do that, you get gas-powered midsize cars that get 50mpg and compact economy cars that get 80mpg, with excellent performance.

    Don’t forget that every fuel cell car is, inherently, an EV since the actual drivetrain is electric. Plus, they’ll have some amount of battery power to use as a buffer for smoothing out performance and allowing the fuel cell to be sized for an average amount of power output vs peak accel/decel.

  12. Spec9 says:

    The real problem with FCVs is that PHEVs provide the main advantages of FCVs (longer range and fast-refueling) at a much lower cost. OK, the FCVs do 100% of their mileage with no local emissions. However, they are much more expensive, there are emissions from steam reforming methane, there are very few hydrogen refueling stations, and hydrogen costs more than electricity for those initial PHEV miles.

    So with a cost-benefit analysis, they just can’t compete well with PHEVs.

  13. Josephus says:


    We need to be careful of using arguments against Hydrogen Fuel Cells that can and have been used against EVs: cost, infastructure, temperature, longevity. Sure EVs are ahead of hydrogen, but those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

    The real reason many of us have little good to say about hydrogen is that we believe that it subverts attention from economical and commercially viable BEVs. Sure, research hydrogen all you want. But don’t use it as a front to avoid EVs, which many of us suspect it is, at least on the funding level.

    1. Eric Fisher says:

      California is going to spent 2 billion dollars on hydrogen fuel stations. This could be very damaging for environmental movements when it fails. Kind of like when the solar panel maker solyndra failed.

      1. scott moore says:

        Solyndra is only the tip of the iceberg. I lot of states, and even down to individual
        cities, have been taken or are being taken for a ride. Remember that most cities try
        to invest tax money that is not currently being used, and it became the rage in the
        last decade to show “that it was being invested in future energy”. In fact, many of
        those projects were specifically oriented towards getting government investment or

        And when your government is taken for a ride, so are you.

  14. scott moore says:

    Notice how fuel cell vehicles are now marketed as “fuel cell electric vehicles”? So now it is time
    to try and tag on to public perception of electric cars as good/clean. How about HDEV? (high definition electric vehicle).

  15. Surya says:

    I’m not against FCEVs IF
    – They can be made as save as BEVs
    – They are price competitive with BEVs
    – They can be refulelled as easily as a BEV
    – They can find a way to make hydrogen at least as green an electricity that comes from the sun. And I think that’s the whole problem they’ll never fix.

    1. doudis2 says:

      I agree, but your last bullet got me thinking. What if they create a system that uses electrolysis via solar panels to create hydrogen at home.

      What would you need:
      – Filtered water supply
      – Solar Electric System
      – Electrolysis rod and controls
      – Tank to store the H2
      – Pumps and controls to pressurize (I guess) the H2 tank
      – Nozzle to fuel your FCV

      I suppose you could have the setup rigged to only run the electrolysis process when the panels were producing (daytime) so as not to run off the grid which would be very inefficient due.

      Sure it would be slow, but if you have this setup at home it would be converting all day while you are at work. Get home, fuel up and go to work in the morning?

      Feasible? Economically and otherwise???

    2. Rick says:

      Funny, I say the exact same thing about comparing EVs to ICE cars.

  16. Steven says:

    H2 powered vehicles are just another means of maintaining control over the consumer. Be it an H2 ICE, or FC, the one constant is the H2 itself. Either way, they are more complicated than an EV, and still required an infrastructure to supply H2 safely.

    I’ll still take an EV as my next car, thank you.

  17. Gadge says:

    Do you think the H-fuel cell is viable for the average passenger car…think again. Read and digest the following article:

  18. pjs says:

    When I first saw the photo, I thought this was an article about Tesla! I’m glad I was mistaken…

  19. Rick says:

    “but FCEVs are years behind EVs to market and, as such, will always be racing to catch up on price point.”

    Not necessarily true, not “always”. Assuming EV technology matures before FCEV technology, EV prices will stop falling, but FCEV technology will continue to fall in price until it matures. It’s not clear yet which will be cheaper when both maturities have occurred.

  20. Jeff Williams says:

    Video below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”

    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America

  21. Jeff Williams says:

    Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
    $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)