Hydrogen-powered cars? Get excited.


The 2015 Hyundai Tucson is introduced at the Los Angeles Auto Show, which is powered by hydrogen. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

If you thought Elon Musk’s Tesla produced some of the most innovative vehicles in the world, wait until you see the new hydrogen-powered cars that were unveiled at the Los Angeles and Tokyo auto shows this month. Not only do these  hydrogen-powered vehicles boast the same sleek and futuristic styling of a Tesla, but they also have superior ranges and refueling times to those of battery-powered electric vehicles.

And that might be the biggest reason of all why hydrogen-powered cars could start entering the mainstream sooner than any of us thought – they behave much more like traditional gasoline-powered cars than do electric vehicles. They have estimated driving ranges and refueling times that resemble those of cars you already own. While it’s certainly nice that these hydrogen cars make no noise and release no carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, what’s even nicer is that an automaker such as Honda is promising that it will be possible to refill its ultra-futuristic FCEV in under 3 minutes and that these cars will have a range of up to 300 miles. Compare that to your typically electric vehicle, which can take hours to charge and may not get you anywhere near 300 miles.

From a consumer standpoint, factors like “range anxiety” matter. The current knock against electric vehicles is that they have limited range, and so when the battery runs out, you’re stuck. It was, after all, why Elon Musk conducted a very public war with the New York Times earlier this year over the alleged performance limitations of the Tesla Model S.

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 20: A charging plug is seen on a Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell Hydrogen-Powered Electric Vehicle during media preview days at the 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show on November 20, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The LA Auto Show was founded in 1907 and is one of the largest with more than 20 world debuts expected. The show will be open to the public November 22 through December 1. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
A charging plug is seen on a Hyundai Tucson. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

As with any potentially disruptive technology, there’s been a firestorm of controversy as automakers cluster into camps: those who advocate a future for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, and those for electric vehicles. On one side, you have Honda, Hyundai and Toyota, all of whom have been making huge bets on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. On the other side, you have Volkswagen, GM, BMW, Nissan and Tesla – all of whom who argue vociferously against the new hydrogen-powered vehicles.

While it’s a tough fight to take on the likes of Elon Musk, whom Fortune just named as its 2013 Businessperson of the Year and whom The Atlantic lumped in the same innovator category as Leonardo da Vinci, it’s equally hard to argue against the fundamental science of the hydrogen-powered car. Quite simply, the better technology deserves to win. And it’s not like a bunch of quixotic start-ups are taking on Tesla with unproven technology – we’re talking about Toyota and Honda.

Not surprisingly, the argument against hydrogen vehicles is really an argument about “sunk costs.” In other words, vehicle makers have sunk so much money into developing the technology of electric vehicles and have spent a corresponding amount of time and money developing a charging network for electric vehicles that they claim it would be a terrible mistake to attempt to recreate the same fueling infrastructure for hydrogen-powered cars. That cost argument comes up again and again, especially since there are only a limited number of places in the United States that are currently equipped to refuel hydrogen-powered vehicles.

As Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn recently pointed out, this is the problem that has bedeviled electric car makers – you need a nationwide charging network for the cars, or else nobody’s going to buy the cars. As he sees it, we’re still a long ways off until we would have enough filling stations to make hydrogen-powered cars economically viable. In October, Elon Musk said that there’s “no way” that hydrogen-powered cars will ever become a workable technology.

Tetsuo Iwamura, executive vice president at Honda Motor Co. and president of American Honda Motor Co., stands on stage with the Honda FCEV concept vehicle during the LA Auto Show in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. The 2013 LA Auto Show is open to the public Nov. 22 - Dec. 1. Photographer: Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Tetsuo Iwamura
Tetsuo Iwamura, executive vice president at Honda Motor Co. and president of American Honda Motor Co., stands on stage with the Honda FCEV concept vehicle during the L.A. Auto Show. (Jonathan Alcorn/Bloomberg)

However, the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen cars may not necessarily be the hurdle they are making it out to be. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Hydrogen car backers, for example, argue that they can achieve economies of scale with hydrogen-powered cars by equipping huge fleets of buses first and using that momentum to build out a more robust charging infrastructure. And, to showcase the performance capabilities of these cars, Aston Martin even created a hydrogen-powered racing car — the Hybrid Hydrogen Rapide S. It’s more proof that you don’t have to sacrifice style and design when it comes to creating these vehicles. Imagine pulling up next to your neighbor’s stodgy four-door sedan with a Honda FCEV that looks like it came from the year 2033.

Ultimately, hydrogen vs. electric may end up polarizing consumers as much as the automakers themselves. Top Gear fans will endlessly debate the relative performance merits of the two types of cars, the MBAs and accountants will mull over the ROI cases for both technologies, government bureaucrats will review potential new subsidies for the cars and the people who actually want to save the environment as much as they want to drive cool cars will drill down on the underlying science of the cars’ technology. While hydrogen cars may still be some ways off from being a practical reality, it’s hard not to get excited about an automotive future that feature cars that look like they could be stars of their own science fiction movie.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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Max Ehrenfreund · November 25, 2013