Go back in time five to ten years, and you will find a serious debate about whether electric vehicles (EVs) or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs) are the future of automobiles. Asian countries in particular aimed to bet big on hydrogen, with The Japan Times reporting in September that Japan wants to have 800,000 FCVs sold by 2030 and China wants 1 million.
But electric vehicles have become the mainstream alternative fuel vehicle of choice, with even Japanese automakers releasing their own electric vehicle lineup. What happened to cause this change? And do hydrogen vehicles have a future?
Some may attribute electric’s success to better marketing, and it is true that hydrogen has not had a popular media figure like Elon Musk and Tesla. Tesla has certainly helped to make electric vehicles cool, like a luxury service such as Limo Service NYC.
However, electric vehicles have succeeded because they offer practical and environmental benefits compared to FCVs. FCVs present unique challenges in terms of manufacturing and safety. Hydrogen can embrittle steel upon contact and hydrogen must be placed under immense pressure in order to be used as a fuel. This means that special canisters must be made, driving up the price of any FCV. Hydrogen must also be transported through special trucks or pipelines while electricity can just use wires.
But the biggest problem with FCVs is making hydrogen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, but very little pure hydrogen exists on Earth. The result is that hydrogen must be manufactured, and the process is more expensive. The California Fuel Cell Partnership states that a gallon of hydrogen fuel costs $5.60, nearly double that of gasoline. Furthermore, hydrogen today is mostly obtained from natural gas, and the process releases carbon dioxide which thus undoes hydrogen’s case for stopping climate change.
The result of these problems is that electric vehicles have achieved a scale that hydrogen vehicles cannot, which will further tilt the playing field in favor of EVs. Because EVs exist, the infrastructure for them will continue to be developed, which will make EVs more popular, and the positive feedback loop continues. FCVs by contrast will suffer from a negative feedback loop, which is made even worse by the fact that FCVs do require a higher infrastructural investment.
EVs have outcompeted hydrogen vehicles for the time being, and that will likely remain the case until new hydrogen technologies to counter the aforementioned problems are developed. But hydrogen still has a future.
Hydrogen does have an advantage in that hydrogen vehicles can refuel faster and can run for longer without refueling. Consequently, buses and trucks may be more interested in hydrogen as they do not have the time to sit for hours when it is time to refuel.
But electric vehicles are improving when it comes to charge times, and the passenger FCV vehicle is approaching a dead end. Electric vehicles have achieved scale and have shown themselves to be more popular, and the hydrogen dream looks farther away than ever.