Hope for Hydrogen: Imagine Fuel Cell Cars

Welcome to the first installment in Hope for Hydrogen. In this series of articles and podcasts, veteran automotive journalist Nicolas Zart and I ask you to imagine a world void of battery electric vehicles (BEVs). In this contrived intellectual exercise, pretend that the inevitable replacement for conventional gas-powered automobiles will be the venerable hydrogen fuel cell car.

I’ve written before about the religious war between battery electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. We’re at the cusp of the end of the 100+ year reign of gasoline-powered personal transportation. It has been driven, literally, by internal combustion engine (ICE) technology. No, these vibration-riddled, maintenance-prone, noisy, polluting vehicles won’t go away overnight; the shift will be gradual.

However, the switch has begun. In the next few years, the speed of the transition will only increase. Prices will precipitate. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will improve, offering greater driving range, lower cost, and certainly more convenience.


Replacing Two Billion Cars

Consider that there’s more than two billion ICE cars in the world today, and 100 million new gas guzzlers are sold each year globally (with nearly 17 million of these in the United States). Only then do we begin to understand that it will take a while to overcome not only social stigma about new transport tech, but simply replacing the installed base.

It is estimated that it would take 20 years to accomplish this, based solely on existing production and consumption numbers. And this is if we could magically snap our fingers and immediately eliminate sales of all ICE cars today. Obviously, we must take a long-term view of the situation.

hyundai tucson fuel cell hydrogen station for linkedin

As passenger cars featuring outdated ICE tech inevitably begin to vanish, what will replace them?

This is an issue of no small contention within the ranks of experts and laypeople alike. We’re a culture of duality. You’re either a good guy or a bad guy, and your white or black hat gives you away. Republicans versus Democrats, Christians versus atheists, and progressives versus conservatives split our creative and intellectual aspirations into competing cultural camps.

Typically, the respective fans of battery electric and fuel cell vehicles find it difficult or impossible to reconcile or respect one another. For many, there’s no room in the Venn diagram for an overlap. In fact, there’s no Venn diagram whatsoever (but, fortunately, no gasoline either). There are only two distinct and widely separated circles. While both feature zero emissions, neither is void of a carbon footprint somewhere in the “well-to-wheels” energy lifecycle.

Hope for Hydrogen Series

Enter this series, Hope for Hydrogen. Today our intellectual game will be to pretend that there are no battery electric vehicles in the world. We’re going to assume that “Supercharger,” “LEAF,” “lithium-ion,” and “Soul EV” are terms that never entered the lexicon. We’ll psych ourselves into believing that our vernaculars are free of phrases like “range anxiety,” “charge time,” and “CHAdeMO socket.”

Instead, assume the new kid on the block is hydrogen. Pretend, for just a few hundred words of text, that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are the clean car model that will be embraced by one and all (which could turn out to be the case; none of us has a crystal ball). This is, of course, what reputable corporate titans like Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai are telling us. Organizations such as the California Hydrogen Fuel Cell Partnership and the South Carolina Hydrogen & Fuel Cell Alliance, among others, are touting the advantages of hydrogen over gasoline and aggressively advocating its use for personal transportation.

2016_Toyota_Fuel_Cell_Vehicle_for_linkedin

Family heir and Toyota Motors president Akio Toyoda has said that his company will migrate away from petrol-powered piston pumpers within a decade. “I do believe that [the] fuel cell vehicle is the ultimate environmentally friendly car,” he told Businessweek last December. Even the Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars. He took delivery of Toyota’s first Mirai in a public ceremony in Tokyo in mid-January.

Thus, as a mental exercise, let’s embrace the mindset of hydrogen and explore its merits.


Excitement For a Better Car

I don’t know about you, but I’m not a big fan of ICE cars (with the exception of a few classics, like the Porsche 911, those gorgeous C2 Corvettes from the 1960s, and that Audi TT I owned a few years ago). The expense of gasoline and maintenance alone is enough to make me jump ship from internal combustion and the noise and pollution that it brings. One might as well just hitch a horse to a buggy and try to find a blacksmith. This is the 21st century, and old-school 19th and 20th century tech just won’t cut it. At least not where our wallets and the environment are concerned.

This being the case, many are excited about the availability of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). Toyota will begin selling its flagship FCV, the Mirai, in September. Hyundai has already begun a limited leasing program for its first hydrogen-powered car, the Tucson Fuel Cell. That’s right, all of us now have the ability to lease or purchase a space-age hydrogen car that emits zero polluting emissions and features a familiar driving range of 265 to 300 miles (just shy of what most ICE cars achieve; improvements to these first generation versions will obviously extend this freshman effort).

Lack of Fueling Stations

Well, not so fast. These groovy vehicles aren’t really available to all of us. In fact, not most of us. Why? Because we don’t live close enough to a hydrogen fueling station. According to PC World, Toyota won’t even sell you a Mirai if you don’t live within a “reasonable” distance of a hydrogen fueling station. The same is true of the new Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell.

And here’s the rub, especially if you pride yourself in being an early adopter and want to put your money where your mouth is in terms of progressive transport tech: There’s currently only 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Nine of these 13, or 70%, are clustered around Los Angeles. The other four? One each in downtown San Francisco and downtown Sacramento, plus Wallingford, CT and another in Columbia, SC. Unfortunately, that’s it.

hyundai-tucson-fuel-cell-rear-three-quarters

If you look up hydrogen fuel cell cars on Wikipedia, it will indicate that there are more stations, like some in Dearborn, MI, Phoenix, AZ, and at Ohio State University in Columbus, OH. However, these either no longer exist, are private (like for corporate and commercial fleets), or are prototypes. In other words, you can’t drive up in your Mirai or Tucson, swipe your debit card, and fill your hydrogen tanks. As such, residents of cities like Portland, St. Louis, Miami Beach, Ft. Worth, Boston, and Indianapolis couldn’t even purchase a fuel cell car if they wanted to.

Creatures of Habit

Humans are creatures of habit. Thus, many will enjoy that FCVs offer the familiar experience of visiting a fueling station and standing next to their car for three or four minutes as they inject pressurized hydrogen into two or three tanks that reside under the back seat. Unfortunately, hydrogen fuel costs more than gasoline. In fact, the cost is about identical to pre-dip gasoline prices (think the first two-thirds of 2014).

Although both Toyota and Hyundai will be incentivizing new customers to purchase their fuel cell vehicles by offering free fuel for the first three years of ownership (including lessees), owners of other models—and Mirai owners after 36 months—will be paying roughly $50 to fill their cars with hydrogen (deriving about 300 miles of travel from the expense).

shinzo abe taking delivery of Mirai 2

This is somewhat disappointing. Can’t we come up with a transport tech that would allow us not only more flexibility in filling stations, but also a lower fuel cost? No wonder people don’t like to give up their gas guzzlers or be early adopters. There may be savings in maintenance (no oil changes, tuneups, transmission work, or conventional exhaust repairs), but there clearly are not in terms of fuel costs. At least not currently.

Only the Beginning

However, let’s be fair. This is, after all, the genesis of a revolution in personal transportation. Passenger vehicles didn’t instantly overtake the horse and buggy at the turn of the last century. Henry Ford’s Model T, introduced in 1908, didn’t spontaneously replace competing forms of transportation. Unlike today, there wasn’t a gas station on every corner when the Model T was first introduced (there are now 121,000 in the United States, with nearly 10,000 in California alone).

To make hydrogen fuel cell cars practical, we need not only a solid network of hydrogen fueling stations, but also what pundits call “infrastructure.” By this, they mean not only the consumer-friendly stations at which people will swipe their card to fill their tank (and buy a soda or a pack of smokes), but also the production and distribution networks that produce (extract), pressurize, and transport hydrogen to these stations.

Lest this become a 4,000 word article, let’s consider only the fueling station side of the equation. You already know that there are paltry few hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. Basically, it’s currently practical to own an FCV only if you live in one of five areas in the U.S. (and, to be practical, mostly Los Angeles). It’s easily possible that you live 30-45 minutes from one of the stations in any of these regions. Personally, I have a gas station that’s two minutes from my front door. Anything less convenient or more challenging than their current situations will be perceived as a pain by most consumers.

But that’s just the here and now. What does the future look like? What is currently being done to alleviate the lack of hydrogen fueling infrastructure?

Find out in the next installment of Hope for Hydrogen….


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:3d1

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related articles at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.

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Consumer Tech is the New Religion

I’m certainly not the first to declare it, but consumer technology is the new religion of the 21st century. With all due respect to your spiritual faith (or lack thereof), middle class consumers are quickly becoming technology zealots. Daily, we worship at the altar of social media and mobile devices.

Our prayers for the blessings of bigger displays, expanded storage, and thinner designs are picked up by wi-fi and Bluetooth as they’re synced with Heaven—up in the iCloud. We speak in tongues, hoping that our new car’s GPS system features voice recognition. If we lose our way, our guardian angels, Siri and Cortana, reveal the path to enlightenment.

church of apple

We ask for forgiveness for having neglected our children by spending too much time on Facebook or posting a nasty comment on Tumblr. We pray that we’ll be blessed with better lighting for our next Instagram photo of an especially good tuna sandwich, or maybe a stranger’s puppy.

Our churches are Apple’s iTunes, Google’s Play, and Amazon’s Prime media streaming and download services, including their holy app stores. To discourage dissenters from leaving the flock, our Bibles are often unreadable at a different church. Netflix and Pandora are two major exceptions, translating their scripture into every language under the sun.

There seem to be more religious wars within modern consumer tech than there are within religion itself. Richard Dawkins and Rick Warren have nothing on Larry Page and Tim Cook. What began as the “PC vs. Mac” platform war in the 1980s, punctuated by Betamax versus VHS, has evolved into Xbox versus Playstation, Android versus iOS, and Tesla Motors versus Toyota. Samsung, Sony, Google, Microsoft, and Apple take shots at each other on a regular basis. It’s Hatfield against McCoy—only this time they’re armed with touchscreen tablets and password-protected internet routers.

Sometimes these religious wars are monotheistic, like Apple’s closed ecosystem that offers both hardware and software from a single vendor. Other companies ask us to worship many gods, like the availability of Microsoft’s Windows and Google’s Android from a number of hardware manufacturers. Often, the battles are less proprietary and more philosophical, such as hydrogen-powered cars versus battery electric vehicles (kind of like Greek Mythology).

girls-on-their-phone

Some in the academic community agree. In 2010, ABC News reported that Heidi Campbell, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, co-wrote a paper “exploring the religious myths and metaphors surrounding Apple.” “[The company] could offer a religious-like experience. It could basically perform the same role in people’s lives that being part of a religious community could,” she wrote.

The vitriol and defensiveness in many factions of these religious schisms can become shockingly brazen and abusive, as if someone took the Lord’s name in vain—or peed in your Cheerios. The utterance of “Apple sucks” or “electric cars are stupid” is bad enough; the response is typically worse. Members of the choir routinely compete for “Most likely to have not graduated middle school.”

But we’ve considered only the religions themselves, not the priests at the pulpit. PC versus Mac, was, of course, Bill Gates versus Steve Jobs. Electric cars versus the established Luddites of Detroit is obviously Elon Musk versus…well, the established Luddites of Detroit (this one is a true David and Goliath metaphor). In terms of building their congregations, it could even be argued that Rupert Murdoch and Mark Zuckerberg are running competing megachurches.

“Steve Jobs, one of the most powerful people of our day, has offered a secular ‘gospel’ to our culture,” wrote evangelical Christian author Sean McDowell when Jobs stepped down as Apple’s CEO for health reasons in 2011. Even Christianity Today in January of 2011, in an article entitled “The Gospel of Steve Jobs,” wrote, “The Apple CEO was able to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.”

“The Apple CEO was able to articulate a perfectly secular form of hope.”

The adoration bestowed upon the top executives of modern technology companies is like that of Southern Baptist parishioners during the rapture. We worship at the feet of charismatic pontiffs like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, and Richard Branson. They’re our silicon saviors, and the only thing that shakes our faith in them is a dead battery or too many casserole recipes in our newsfeed.

android-fanboy

When it comes to mobile gadgets and streaming media, some of us even worship two gods—like a household with one Catholic and one Jewish parent that recognizes both Christmas and Hanukkah. These odd and overly open-minded people may sport both an iPhone from Apple and a Nexus 7 tablet from Google. Maybe they have a Galaxy S5 smartphone and an iPad. Hasn’t anyone told them that this is, basically, against the rules?

In the end, the best digital dogma is the one that suits your lifestyle, budget, and personal beliefs. Or the one with the coolest logo. But it’s your money going into the offering plate; worship with the company or platform of your choice.

And what about the sinners? You know, the gluttonous people at the airport who hog two outlets to recharge their devices, or the rude fanboys who leave flippantly disparaging comments on your carefully articulated posts? Well, there’s a special place in hell for them. A place where there’s a complete lack of extended warranties and app updates, where the only stores are Circuit City and RadioShack, and where they’re given only a PalmPilot PDA and a CalicoVision game console.

For eternity.

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Curt Robbins


Curt Robbins is author of the following books from Amazon Kindle:

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtARobbins, read his auto-related articles on CarNewsCafe, check out his Apple-themed articles on Apple Daily Report, and read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications. You can also view his photos on Flickr.