Dec 01, 2015
Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai brought their latest hydrogen powered fuel cell cars to the Los Angeles auto show, setting off a war of words between themselves and Tesla Motors. Elon Musk, Tesla’s high profile CEO, has famously described fuel cells as “fool cells,” suggesting they are a waste of precious time, money and resources in the battle to get the world off fossil fuels.
Oddly enough, a fuel cell is just another form of battery. Instead of storing electricity for use later, a fuel cell makes electricity only when needed. Electric motors really don’t care where the electricity comes from.
Honda, Toyota and Hyundai are pushing fuel cell technology because of its convenience. They believe the main factor holding mainstream buyers back from buying an alternative fuel car is psychological. They might describe it as “fear of charging.”
It’s true that a lot of people don’t want to be bothered hooking their cars up to a charger every 50 miles or so. Anxiety about finding an available charger away from home is real. Many people don’t have an hour or so of free time in their day to charge their car if their battery gets low. Add them together and you have a stubborn set of preconceived notions that inhibit the growth of battery electric cars.
Fuel cell advocates like to say that their drivers can pull into a hydrogen refueling station, fill their car with hydrogen, and be ready for another 300 miles of hassle free driving in 10 minutes or less. The only emissions from a fuel cell are water vapor and heat. What could be more environmentally friendly than that?
Tesla begs to disagree. Vice president Diarmuid O’Connell says, “Fuel cells are dependent on public infrastructure in a way electric vehicles will never be. Fuel cell vehicles are not even zero emission vehicles,” he said. That’s because most of the hydrogen used in fuel cell vehicles today is derived from fossil fuels. O’Connell glosses over the fact that much of the electricity used to recharge Tesla batteries also comes from burning fossil fuels, especially coal.
One major difference between Tesla and the fuel cell crowd is that Tesla is building its own network of charging stations at no cost to tax payers. Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai expect the infrastructure to support their hydrogen powered cars will be paid for out of pubic funds.
Ten years from now, people will look back at this debate and wonder what all the fuss was about. By then, there will probably be a clear winner in the battery versus fuel cell war. In all likelihood, new technologies no one has even thought of yet will determine the outcome.