Are Hydrogen Cars the Future - Or Just a Pipe Dream?
I'm back from the annual SEMA show and that means lots of shop talk about what the future might bring for the automotive industry. Unlike the regional auto shows though, this one is about flashy things and concepts that are designed simply to show what "Might Be". One such example was the ridiculous - but super cool Toyota Tundra PIE truck that was designed to be zero emissions since it uses a hydrogen fuel cell. It's undeniably cool ... but while the promise of hydrogen is vast, the reality is that hydrogen is far from the perfect fuel for cars of the future.
That being said though, the reality is that we need to change how we power the world in all sectors, and this includes our cars. If we demand personal mobility instead of mass transit, we need to be able to do so in more a sustainable way. Electric cars have grown in popularity and the technology is finally ready for the mass market but hydrogen has that allure of being able to produce power with only water vapor as the byproduct. Some experts believe THIS is the future, so why aren’t we seeing them in our garages yet?
At the core - Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars are like the perfect cross between the standard internal combustion engines found in most cars and the EV vehicles we are being drawn to. Without getting too technical, fuel cell vehicles work by generating electricity as hydrogen and oxygen (from the air) are fused together. That electric current then powers an electric motor instead of the combustion of gas or diesel driving a piston that then turns the drive shaft. On paper, that should be the perfect solution.
Unfortunately, like everything in life, there’s a long list of pros and cons. Nothing can be simple, can it? Below, we take a look at some of the most prominent reasons for and against the hydrogen car.
Environmental benefits of Hydrogen Fuel Cells for Cars:
Well, this is the big one, the reason why so many people are eager to get the process underway. When you’re in a traditional car, your engine pumps out a lot of chemicals that are bad for the environment. You know what’ll come out of a hydrogen vehicle? Water vapor. This, we can all agree, is not going to do too much damage to the environment or anything else. There are studies that show people who live in areas busy with vehicles are more likely to die from exhaust fumes than secondhand cigarette smoke. Let that sink in for a second. With a hydrogen vehicle, all that’s getting pumped into the air is something that’s not going to do your harms any harm.
Hydrogen Is Renewable
We have to start planning for life after the traditional exhaust vehicle if for no other reason than soon we’re not going to power them anymore. They run off fossil fuels, which once have been used up will be gone forever. And actually, it might not even be that far into the future. There are plenty of risky moves taking place to get more of it out of the ground; it was never sustainable, but the actions now really highlight just how unsustainable it is. Well, here’s the good think about hydrogen: there’s a lot of it, and it’s always going to be around. It’ll take one giant push now to get the infrastructure in place, but once it’s there, we won’t have to think about switching things up for a while.
Hydrogen Cars are Fast To Refuel
The inconvenient truth about electric cars is that they’re not always reliable. Well, they are, but when you’re running low on energy, you need to dedicate large amounts of time to the battery charged up again. The fastest time is around thirty minutes, and if you’re taking a long trip, then who has that kind of time to sit around and just wait? When it comes to a hydrogen vehicle, everything is speedy. Indeed, you can get the tank filled in around five minutes or so - not that much more than filling the tank with gasoline.
Compared to Most Electric Vehicles, Hydrogen Cars Can Travel Farther
Another plus point for the hydrogen car is that it can travel longer distances before you need to top up the tank. You’ll get nearly three hundred miles from a full tank, which is darn good - again, it’s not too dissimilar to what you’d get from a gas powered vehicle. When you compare it to an electric vehicle, well, it’s not even close. And remember, once those three hundred miles are up, it’s only a quick five-minute refill before you have another three hundred miles of driving.
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars Nearly Silent
Who wants to live near a busy road these days? With so many cars on the roads, it’s one like roar of engines, day and night. It can decrease a home’s value, and with good reason. If we all make the switch to hydrogen vehicles, however, then you might just see those home values creeping back up in the right direction. They’re not silent, and it’s possible that electric vehicles are slightly more quiet, but they’re definitely not loud - indeed, you can barely hear them. Anyone who enjoys walking (and living) in peace, rather than with the sound of passing vehicles, should support this move.
Innovation in All Forms Is Needed Right Now
What does the future of private vehicles hold? We don’t know for sure, but we can be confident (/we should hope) that it’ll be away from fossil fuels, which positively have to stay in the ground if we’re going to have any chance of combating climate change. If there’s a movement behind hydrogen vehicles, then it’s hard not to see that as anything other than a step in the right direction. There’s a whole bunch of problems with our current energy consumption, not the least that it affects the earth and our general health. This might be a solution.
Sounds Good ... What's the Downside of Hydrogen Fuel Cell Cars?
Ok so I'm a negative nancy when it comes to hydrogen. While I'm not a fan of the technology, I do absolutely appreciate and applaud the research and development into the technology. Ultimately, the solution to our global problem with dependency on fossil fuels isn't an either or ... it is and and and. At some point, the biggest challenge that faces hydrogen will be resolved but at that point, EV will be a much better solution as well and mass transit solutions and society will likely have adjusted to a new way of transportation as well.
The reality is most of these cons to hydrogen fuel cell cars are the same challenges facing EVs also. Except for two VERY CRITICAL challenges ...
It’s Hydrogen and People Perceive The Technology as Dangerous
You might recall from school that hydrogen is flammable. This is an issue, albeit how big of an issue remains to be seen. It’s highly unlikely that a hydrogen car would explore - let’s keep in mind that gas from the pump is also highly flammable, but when was the last time a car randomly exploded? It’s not an issue with the car. However, it is an issue with public perception. There may need to be a public education system in overdrive to convince people that this new type of car doesn’t pose a threat.
Hydrogen Is Terribly Energy Inefficient
While it is true that hydrogen is renewable and fundamentally acts as a clean energy source - once produced - it is terribly inefficient to produce. The reason for this is that unlike oil or natural gas that is found naturally or electricity stored from other power sources in a battery ... Hydrogen requires significant electricity to produce at this point. That means that similar to EV options, you often just shift the environmental issues from one area to the other since most power plants are currently natural gas, coal, or nuclear. Alternatively, it can be harvested from natural gas as a byproduct. Then, once produced it needs to be compressed into a liquid form and transported across the country to fueling stations. That just adds to the cost and reduces the efficiency since a significant amount of energy is used just to get it to where you need it.
At some point, solar and wind power will be able to make this equation more favorable and there might even be biological solutions to producing hydrogen gas. However, even the production of electricity from the fusion of hydrogen and oxygen in the car is inefficient due to the large amount of energy released as heat.
There’s a Cost
Ahh yes, there had to be a catch, and this is one of them. They’re expensive, very expensive. At current costs, it’s just not feasible for enough people to buy one. However, it’s worth saying that this has been true of everything at one point or another. The general public wasn’t buying cars when they first announced, but over time it was possible. We’d go through a period where no-one but the wealthy can afford them, but costs would soon come down. However, for the technology to come down in price it requires public demand.
Currently battery technology is a maturing platform that offers similar benefits and so it would take significant changes in technology for the industry to shift to hydrogen instead.
Maintenance might Be Difficult
Most of the cons are connected to “teething problems,” and this is another one related to that issue. Because it’s a different type of vehicle, maintenance might be difficult - not because they’re overly complicated machines, but because mechanics have just never seen them before. Owners would have to take their vehicle to an expert who deals with that type of car, and they might not be located around the corner.
Insurance and Claims Policies Will Need to Adjust
With any new vehicle, there are always teething problems and hydrogen sometimes has an bad reputation. We see it with self-driving cars, and it would happen with hydrogen cars, too. While there’ll be problems with the actual incidents on the road, the complexity might arrive with regard to the legal procedures, such as insurance and making claims. People already have a difficult time understanding what is comparative fault, but the problem will get more difficult when people have different types of car. For example, how much blame could be assigned to a driver with a hydrogen car, if the conditions were, say, freezing? They say that the weather won’t affect the engine process, but the weather affects all processes from time to time. How might that be reasonable for an incident on the roads?
The Infrastructure Isn’t There
While California has ambitious plans to build hydrogen fueling stations, that's far from a national initiative. It’s all good and well saying that a hydrogen car can travel three hundred miles on one tank, but there’s a big flaw in this argument, and it’s that when they’re getting close to empty, it’s highly unlikely that there’ll be a refilling station anywhere nearby. The infrastructure just isn’t there. And with demand so far pretty low, there is much incentive to invest massive amounts of money to build them, either. This is a similar drawback to battery technology as well, but every home in America already has electric power and there are thousands of fast charging stations all across the country today.
Low Public Demand For Hydrogen Fuel Cell Technology in Cars
Like most things, the jury is out when it comes to hydrogen cars, just as it is with electric and self-driving cars. No-one’s quite sure how everything will work, if the cars will be reliable, and so on. It’s all mostly conjecture. To get a proper view of how sustainable this type of vehicle is, there’ll have to get more on the road, and check.
Regardless of my opinions though, It's always exciting to see manufacturers like Toyota push the limits of technology and continue to innovate. I welcome a future when we can walk around a city and enjoy the fresh, clean air rather than the future being a dystopia of acid rain and smog. I'm sure that hydrogen fuel cell powered vehicles and residential as well as commercial power backup systems will be in the mixture but the question is, at what level.
- Written by James Hills
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