“I wouldn’t have any chance using battery-electric,” said Ogitsu, who works as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “There is no flexibility.”
Ogitsu is one of the 8,000 or so early adopters of hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles in California, guinea pigs in an experiment by automakers, industry boosters and state officials to power an emissions-free driving future by turning to the universe’s most abundant element. The cars have electric motors, but are refueled with hydrogen in a style more like their gasoline-powered counterparts. The hydrogen mixes with oxygen to create electricity inside the fuel cell to power the motor. The only byproduct is water, which spews from the car like emissions from a gasoline car’s tailpipe.
In California, the vehicles typically come with up to $10,000 in tax savings and a $15,000 fuel card, good for about three years of free hydrogen fuel, lessening the blow of a $60,000 pricetag. Compared to typical plug-in cars that travel about 100 to 370 miles on a single charge, hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles promise 300 to 400 miles per fill-up, similar to the highest-mileage gas-only cars.
But despite those selling points, hydrogen-fueled cars have long lagged behind their battery-electric counterparts in adoption, a gap that they appear increasingly unlikely to overcome. Although Tesla has helped drive widespread consumer adoption of battery cars, along with easy ways to charge up at home and on the road, hydrogen-fueled vehicles haven’t made it past early buyers. With just 44 public fueling stations in California by January, the fleet has been persistently plagued by sparse coverage; the cars are also more expensive.
A review of U.S. Department of Energy data also showed that outside of California, the build-out of hydrogen refueling infrastructure stagnated over the past decade as electric vehicles rose. While there were 58 public and private hydrogen stations in the country in 2012, the number had grown to only 61 by the end of 2019 — as the share grew more and more concentrated in California, which doubled its network of stations over that time while states such as New York saw their hydrogen pumps close.
“What challenges fuel-cell technology faced 10 years ago have been compounded by the increased adoption of pure electric vehicles over the past 10 years,” said Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst who is the executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.
Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has blasted the technology as “mind-bogglingly stupid," referring to the components as “fool cells.”
Meanwhile, the Golden State has more than half a million plug-in electric vehicles. Tesla’s affordability proposition — an electric car with far better range than competitors at a bargain-luxury price, combined with generous government tax incentives — attracted buyers to the cars. With the growth of those battery cars, fuel cells and their decades of investment risk being left behind, experts say.
Still, Japanese competitors are doubling down in a renewed effort to persuade drivers in California, Hawaii and East Asia to make the jump to hydrogen. Toyota, the world’s most valuable car company, is increasing its production of its Mirai fuel-cell car to 10 times its current output for the 2021 model year, when it introduces a fresh version of the car aimed at aspirational buyers, like Tesla’s Model S did for electric cars nearly a decade ago.
Honda and Hyundai are offering their own fuel-cell models to lure buyers in California, where Toyota first introduced its Mirai in 2015. Following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, resource-starved Japan began shifting to a cleaner hydrogen economy, and the country’s automakers followed suit by introducing consumer hydrogen cars.
The automakers say the fuel-cell bet represents an investment in democratizing electric vehicles.
“To put it bluntly, it’s too early to [favor] any single technology because people continue to want choice,” said Stephen Ellis, manager of fuel-cell vehicle marketing at Honda’s American division. “One of the things we’re learning is, for example, multiunit dwellings don’t lend themselves to having lots of charging opportunities for all the tenants in the building. That’s one example where fuel cell can work extremely well.”
But with minimal adoption of hydrogen vehicles so far, retailers have struggled to reach economies of scale to lower their prices — despite significant state funding. The vehicles are expensive to produce and dealers must rely on tax incentives and offers of free fuel to persuade buyers to gamble on hydrogen. A report by California says the most common price of hydrogen is $13.99 per kilogram, which translates to about $5.60 per gallon of gasoline, but that National Renewable Energy Laboratory has estimated hydrogen prices could fall to $10 to $8 per kilogram between 2020 and 2025. (According to AAA data as of Tuesday, a gallon of regular gas in California cost about $3.49.)
“I think I would say that fuel cell is probably 10 years behind the battery,“ said Tyson Eckerle, a fuel-cell booster who serves as deputy director of zero emission vehicle market development in Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Office of Business and Economic Development. “I mean, you’ve seen a proliferation of battery cars and it’s super exciting, right? The challenge will be now bridging [fuel-cell vehicles] from that early adopter into the mass market.”
The biggest challenge to California adoption stems from a lack of fuel, and a related lack of convenience.
For owners, the trouble began with sparse availability of fuel pumps, which are dotted around two major urban centers, Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay area.
In June, an explosion rocked the facilities at Air Products and Chemicals Inc., which supplies hydrogen to many of the Bay Area’s hydrogen pumps. Because there was no backup plan, the single incident diminished supply to large parts of the state.
That led to a worsening fuel shortage, prompting owners to park their cars and turn to Toyota and Honda for loaners, lest the companies risk the perception of leaving early adopters out to dry.
Erin Fogarty, who leased a Toyota Mirai, was lured to the car by the promise of $15,000 of free fuel. The inability to fill up easily, however, made her experience more of a cautionary tale.
“There’s been many times that I’ve tried to fill up in San Jose; the [fuel] latches are broken or they need repair again,” said Fogarty, who held onto the car despite the challenges. “We’ve missed dance classes and personal training classes and stuff that really costs a lot of money and truly impacts our quality of life.”
Major automakers had to urge early buyers to stick with them through the trouble. Toyota forgave owners’ payments last fall and offered loaners to lessees who couldn’t get around. Jackie Birdsall, a senior engineer with Toyota who is involved in the research and development of fuel-cell vehicles, said that the supply shortage was an “unfortunate experience” and that the company has tried to alleviate the pain.
“California is a very unique use case in that we have the highest number of fuel-cell vehicles for the lowest amount of hydrogen dispensers,” said Birdsall, contrasting the state to Japan and Europe. “We’re really stretching the capabilities of the hydrogen infrastructure, and the entire world is watching California to see how it’s working.”
That’s true in Los Angeles, too, where fuel pumps remain sparse compared to widely available gasoline and electric-vehicle charging infrastructure. Ally Rose said she pulled up to the Woodland Hills fueling station in her 2018 Toyota Mirai one day when the driver of another hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle abruptly approached from behind and slammed down the fuel lever.
“You’re done,” he said, according to Rose, who said the owner was wary that her car would suck the last drops of hydrogen from the only station for miles.
Amid her chronic inability to fuel, Rose persuaded Toyota to pay for her to rent a car: a Tesla Model 3.
Shane Stephens, founder and chief development officer of FirstElement Fuel, which runs the hydrogen retail network True Zero, said the Santa Clara explosion was a learning experience that resulted in suppliers and retailers putting redundancy in place — building backup plans — so that one incident doesn’t create a network-wide shortage.
California officials are promising to support dozens of new hydrogen fueling stations in the state over the next five years. The goal is to build 1,000 stations by the end of the decade, a network that could provide roughly the coverage of California’s 8,000 or so gas stations. By January, True Zero was operating 20 stations and hoping to expand its network to more than 70 stations over the next five years.
Toyota, meanwhile, is expanding Mirai production from 3,000 to 30,000 for the 2021 model year, aiming it at a more mainstream consumer. Going forward it, will have more of a sports-car feel: a lower, more minimalist profile and slanted roof, along with promised improved performance and handling through a driver-oriented switch from front- to rear-wheel drive.
“We initially launched the vehicle to demonstrate the technology will [work],” said Birdsall, the senior engineer with Toyota. “Now we want a vehicle that really gains mass appeal that people see and they want to drive," she said, adding that it "is really meant to introduce hydrogen fuel cells in a sexy way to the customer and try to bring them on board.”
But even as some say it’s too soon to make any definitive conclusions about the path forward, automakers and public officials are under increasing pressure to solve hydrogen’s challenges, as early adopters turn in the first leased vehicles in a few years and consider whether to stick with hydrogen-powered cars for the long haul.
The fuel-cell vehicle, with a similar federal rebate and an even higher state rebate, has not taken off over the same period that Tesla gained a foothold on the battery-electric market. Beyond the differing timelines, Eckerle, the government official, thinks the fuel cell essentially democratizes the shift to electrification, which creates inherent challenges.
“I think really it comes down to infrastructure,” he said. “The major difference [is] you can launch a battery-electric car in a market based on single-family homes with garages. … But with hydrogen, that’s all public infrastructure. So until you have those stations and critical mass, you can’t really launch a market.”
Jonathan Baran, Tom LeGro and Erin Patrick O’Connor contributed to this report.