The Reality of Hydrogen Cars

I recently posted to LinkedIn some quotes by Tesla Motors and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk regarding the practicality of the current state of hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation.

The post was inspired by the research I’ve been conducting for my next book, Understanding Alternative Cars. The book will feature a chapter regarding hydrogen-powered vehicles in an effort to eliminate confusion for consumers–while also accomplishing some myth-busting.

My LinkedIn post:

elon musk for twitter 2In January 2014, in an interview with British magazine Autocar, Musk said the following regarding hydrogen fuel cells as applied to personal transportation:

“They’re mind-bogglingly stupid. You can’t even have a sensible debate.”

“Consider the whole fuel cell system against a Model S. It’s far worse in volume and mass terms, and far, far, worse in cost. And I haven’t even talked about hydrogen being so hard to handle.”

“Success is simply not possible.”

“Manufacturers do it [FCEVs] because they’re under pressure to show they’re doing something ‘constructive’ about sustainability. They feel it’s better to be working on a solution a generation away rather than something just around the corner.”

“Hydrogen is always labeled the fuel of the future—and always will be.”

There’s currently quite a bit of contention regarding the topic of hydrogen power for cars. Given Toyota’s recent announcement that it will migrate from fossil fuels to more modern technologies, like hydrogen and electricity, and BMW’s recent statement that it will no longer employ gas-powered internal combustion engines by the year 2025, this is a big deal. The economic and environmental repercussions of the migration from fossil fuels to alternative, modern technologies will be felt by everyone.

A commenter to my LinkedIn post, Joe Wojdacz, who identifies himself as a “disruptive innovationist” within the motion picture and film industry in Los Angeles, posted the following:

“I’m sorry but, what a dumb thing to say by someone claiming the mantle of the incomparable Nikola Tesla! How about looking more than a generation behind at the man himself who found the Cosmos to be a battery. No need for Li or Hydrogen. WTF people?!”

In response, I emailed Mr. Wojdacz the following:

“Joe: I love the ‘idea’ of hydrogen, but every time I research the numbers and efficiency ratio, it makes no sense. The most reputable recent source I consulted stated an efficiency ratio of 1.3 to one. Meaning that 1.3 units of energy are invested to deliver one unit of energy (in this argument, to propel a vehicle).

American consumers love convenience. There’s a fast food drive-thru on every corner and all pizza shops provide home delivery for a reason. Convenience is king, few would argue. Ok, given that, how are we to assume that an expensive network of hydrogen fueling stations is more convenient for drivers than simply plugging in at home or work?

Centralized fueling stations are a thing of the past in an all-EV world. They die, along with the 155-year-old propulsion tech they supported, internal combustion engines.

A factor that will actually generate a surplus of energy on the grid will be rooftop consumer solar power. This will be especially true for those who can afford a storage battery and, thus, engage in the time shifting of energy (charging one’s car after dark/post-work commute, the same way that consumers currently time shift TV entertainment using DVRs).

Even if we assume that the majority of the future hydrogen fuel station infrastructure is derived from stations that currently dispense gasoline, it doesn’t change the fact that consumers will choose the $4 at-home, in-the-garage, overnight refueling over the $50 hydrogen fuel cell, only-at-the-dispensing station, approach.

I would love to engage with an informed and reasonably balanced hydrogen fan/enthusiast/proponent regarding these points. I’m not against *any* clean, renewable tech, given the nastiness of the gasoline production life cycle (fracking, high cost, refineries, and exhaust from tail pipes). But when I do the math for fuel cell vehicles versus EVs, fuel cells always lose by a wide margin.

Unless there’s some magic (and magically inexpensive) leapfrog propulsion fuel on the immediate horizon–like Star Trek-inspired dilithium crystals or something–electricity makes so much more sense that it isn’t even funny.

Joe, thank for you opinion on all this. But is there something I’m missing here? Everything Musk says has made sense to me so far.”

Please consider this post an invitation to both pro- and anti-hydrogen enthusiasts alike to participate in a mature, professional, and educational debate regarding the merits and practicality of hydrogen and electricity as power sources for the next generation of personal vehicles.

I’m sure we’ll all learn something. Because, after all, we share the same planet and we all pay a significant portion of our incomes for personal transportation.

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Curt Robbins


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

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ello in Real Life

ello logo for blog

[Updated August 25, 2015]

Back in early October, I wrote a blog post regarding the hip new social network Ello. Based out of Vermont, this unique digital gathering place boasts an ad-free social environment and never sells user data to outside parties. Ello feels so strongly about this that it has published an anti-establishment Manifesto that begins with the line “Your social network is owned by advertisers.” It’s obviously a very different approach to social media than Facebook or LinkedIn.

Another unique feature of Ello: It’s currently invite only. If a friend doesn’t share one of their invites with you, you’re SOL. For those who haven’t received an invite, this is obviously somewhat of a deal killer—a dynamic that doesn’t exist on most social networks. Kik, Vine, Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, LinkedIn, Pinterest…they’re all begging people to join. Ello, on the other hand (and for the time being), is purposefully limiting its user population.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers.

I finally received an invite from a fellow author friend and jumped on a few days ago. I can attest to the fact that Ello isn’t for everyone. But for those who will enjoy it, they’ll probably really love it.

Artsy & Design Oriented

Ello is incredibly artsy and design-oriented. And I’m not limiting this description to the Ello site itself. After you gain membership and begin using the Discover feature to find new “Friends” (who you simply follow; you don’t need their permission), you quickly get the feeling that the majority of Ello’s users are designers, photographers, and artists of one variety or another.

It sometimes appears—although this is a gross overstatement—as if Ello is mostly neck-bearded bohemians, attractive rock climbers, and alternative lifestylers who live in hipster cities like Portland, Denver, San Francisco, and Austin.

You also perceive a culture that’s intelligent, talented, possibly pretentious, and absolutely creative. If nothing else, most Ello members have an appreciation for leading edge design (I can see Apple executives enjoying Ello). Personally, I perceive this service to be populated by both successful and starving artists, cord cutters, nature lovers, and folks who are obsessed with art and photography.

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Ello is receiving mixed reviews from actual members. A simple search of the hashtag #ello on Twitter reveals everything from affinity to indifference to recommendations of abandonment.

Worth the Effort?

“I have Ello now, but I don’t see the point, unless you’re an artsy type and like to share images” said one member. Another queried, “Ok, fess up. How many of you joined Ello and have completely forgotten about it?”

Of course, there’s those who absolutely adore this quirky new service. “So in love with Ello,” said one. Another opined, “I got an invitation to Ello—it’s restored my faith in the potential of social media.” Regarding the site’s layout, one member said, “Minimalism is the most appealing design these days. Kudos to being the bare minimum.”

Another member proclaimed the site’s potential greatness: “I made the leap. With a few tweaks, Ello could be huge.” Considering that it’s still in beta, those tweaks are inevitable. Ello’s success, however, certainly isn’t.

Some opinions regarding Ello are philosophical: “Simple, beautiful & ad-free. Is this how social networks should be?” However, the network’s minimal design is actually perceived by some to be overdone.

“I’ve realised it’s too plain to hold my attention,” said one, while another quipped, “Just signed up to Ello—is the user interface supposed to be so borked?”

With so many new members, there are those intelligent souls who are waiting to get some time under their belts before declaring if Ello is worthy of being a part of their daily diet of social media. Said one newbie, “No opinions made up yet of Ello, but already amused that their Help page…is titled ‘WTF.'” Said another, “Just got invited to join Ello. I don’t know how to feel about this.”

Tasha James, a 20-something entrepreneur from Pennsylvania, confessed, “My first impression is that it’s overly simplistic. I’m not exactly sure what I’m supposed to be doing there.” Jon Fahrner, an IT executive from San Francisco and another new member, facetiously summed up Ello’s culture: “Just guessing Ello, the new invite-only social network, is for creatives and designers. Just a guess…”

You May Dig It

Whether you would enjoy Ello really depends on how much disposable time you have for social media and to what extent you appreciate art and alternative culture overall. It’s kind of like tree-hugging granola culture meets Silicon Valley geekdome meets the art scenes of L.A., New York, and London.

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I doubt many will be dumping Facebook for Ello. In a way, that’s good. It means Ello is its own thing. While some in the media have dubbed this new, exclusive network the “Facebook killer,” that’s really an overly simplistic and ignorant label. It’s a totally different thing.

The only element Ello and Facebook seem to have in common is that they’re both social networks and they both allow you to have friends. Beyond that, they’re as different as a Ford F-250 pickup truck and a Porsche 911 sports car. Ello did finally mimic the “Like” feature with its own heart shaped “Love” button, which functions more as a bookmarking feature.

I’m glad Ello is around. It’s clearly a rebellious challenge to the internet’s status quo. Thankfully, it’s also a good hangout for those who hate ads, have an appreciation for art, design, and photography, or simply want to take the path less traveled.

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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 AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.

Ello? Are You a Product?

ello logo for blogTim Cook, CEO of Apple, recently spoke out—in a thinly veiled jab at Google and Facebook in the form of an open letter to customers—regarding the fact that Apple doesn’t sell customer data to advertisers or other third parties. In a similar vein, a new social network has emerged that directly challenges ad-supported social media by claiming to never sell user data.

The service? Ello.

Ello is getting quite a bit of media attention. It’s an ad-free social media site that’s being labeled a potential “Facebook killer” and the “anti-Facebook.” While no competing social network will likely kill—or even put a significant dent in—Facebook in the near future, Ello’s emergence and the serious attention it’s garnering are a sign that social media is maturing and beginning to serve different niches.

Ello, still in beta, is a free service launched by artists and designers in Burlington, Vermont (where, symbolically, roadside billboards are illegal). It has been described as a hybrid of Twitter and Tumblr. On its website, the company states, “We believe a social network can be a tool for empowerment. Not a tool to deceive, coerce and manipulate—but a place to connect, create and celebrate life,” adding the Applesque, “You are not a product.”

Currently, Ello membership is available only via invite (although the service is still gaining 35,000 new signups and 45,000 invite requests per hour). New users are permitted to invite several friends. Unlike most social networks, Ello allows members to follow others as either “friends” or “noise” and doesn’t reveal how you’ve categorized them. Said one newspaper review, “Whatever the online version of ‘new car smell’ is, Ello has it.” This tone suggests that this relatively novel social network is special simply because it’s the new kid on the block—not because it’s truly disruptive in the evolution of social media. Which, of course, remains to be seen.

Echoing Cook’s message regarding customers versus products, the Ello Manifesto, posted on the company’s sparsely designed website, states, “Every post you share, every friend you make, and every link you follow is tracked, recorded, and converted into data. Advertisers buy your data so they can show you more ads. You are the product that’s bought and sold.”

Further indoctrinating potential users into its customer-focused, David-meets-Goliath culture, the company adds, “We believe there is a better way. We believe in beauty, simplicity, and transparency. We believe that the people who make things and the people who use them should be in partnership.” I love the sound of that—and sincerely hope Ello survives past its startup phase. I’d also like to know what Vermont verde these guys are smoking.

Media response to Ello has been mixed, but typically cynical or pessimistic. England’s The Guardian wrote, “We’re turning to the new thing because it’s new, not because it’s good.” CNET reviewed the nascent service with a similar tone: “Plenty of folks are dubious.” AL.com, although supportive of the site, reported, “It’s pretty likely, however, that Ello is a flash in the pan.”

Unlike competing services from LinkedIn and Facebook, Ello lacks a “Like” feature. No doubt this is in response to the fact that it’s one of the most efficient ways in which Facebook and LinkedIn collect user preference data to sell to advertisers. It also currently lacks user blocking and a mobile app. In fact, there’s plenty of features you might be habituated to using on social media that aren’t available in Ello—at least not yet.

If this service is free and there’s no ads, how does it pay for server farms and employee salaries? The company plans to begin offering supplemental “special features” to enhance the user experience. Surely they’re hoping that all of your friends will purchase some of these features and, if you don’t, you’ll suffer feature envy or be incapable of engaging in certain types of communication. Gizmodo said it well: “Think of [Ello] as a freemium social network.”

In the end, Ello might turn out to simply be a relatively short-lived phenomenon. At worse, it could disappear in a few months (after its initial venture capital runs dry). At best, it might gain tens of millions of users and subtly influence services like Facebook and the resuscitated Myspace. Some are speculating that interest in Ello doesn’t necessarily reflect an affinity for this new, hip social network, but rather a disdain for old entrenched players. As The Guardian’s Jess Zimmerman wrote in late September, “Entrenched social networks like Twitter and Facebook would do well to pay attention, because they’re the ships we’re trying to abandon.”

Time will tell if enough people abandon—or, more likely, simply supplement—networks like Facebook and LinkedIn to ensure Ello’s survival. Just the fact that it allows members to use alias names will surely help it gain a few million followers (aliases violate Facebook’s recently introduced “real name” policy that has infuriated members of the LGBT community seeking to avoid harassment). In the meantime, if you’re really curious, stop by Ello’s website and drop your name in the hat, praying to the hipster gods of this new social network for an invite to the party.

It’s refreshing that this newbie service isn’t pulling any punches when it comes to its competitors. “We’re not interested in ruling the world. We think people that are motivated to do things like that have unresolved psychological problems.” Well alright now.

But don’t assume that meteorological success for Ello would hamper the explosion of Facebook, which—at 1.2 billion global users—hasn’t even peaked yet. Also, if a sufficient number of members don’t buy extended features to feed the company cash, this hip service will die before it even gets a chance to appear on the radar of most Facebook or Twitter users.

Probably the best way of describing this quirky social network was provided by a commenter on Gizmodo: “THERE’S A NEW SOCIAL MEDIA OUR PARENTS HAVEN’T RUINED YET!”

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Curt Robbins

[Also check out a follow-up post: Ello in Real Life.]


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

You can follow him on Twitter at @CurtRobbins, read his AV-related blog posts at rAVe Publications, and view his photos on Flickr.