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.

Innovation: Not a Purple Pencil

Companies today are obsessed with innovation. As they should be. Call it a “paradigm shift,” “disruption,” or simply a “new age.” It’s all the same. If publish or perish is the mantra of academics, then smart companies should be preaching “disrupt or die.”

Marketing efforts prevail, however. Middle class consumers are continually told that the companies from which they purchase goods and services are innovative. But innovation isn’t a #2 pencil on which a company slaps a coat of purple instead of yellow paint. Innovation is a mechanical pencil you can re-use forever, simply purchasing new lead (especially when we’re running out of trees).

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Innovation isn’t a slightly better something, it’s a new something. True innovation from companies is customer-centric. It isn’t the Chevy Volt, with a battery pack cozying up to an internal combustion engine. It’s a fully electric Tesla Model S or a Nissan Leaf, with zero engine noise, more storage space, and connectivity to your smartphone. Disruption isn’t Comcast or Time Warner Cable offering on-demand video streaming or more digital channels. It’s Netflix and Vudu turning the industry upside down and encouraging cord cutting. Improving things for consumers isn’t Hewlett-Packard or Dell cranking out laptops with faster chips and higher resolution screens. It’s Apple, Samsung, and Google producing leading-edge mobile devices and wearables—and making them interactive with our homes and vehicles.

Innovation comes from companies like Netflix, Tesla Motors, Apple, and USAA. It was USAA, the financial services company serving primarily military customers, that introduced taking a photo of a cheque to deposit it. Why was it the little guy, USAA, that developed this consumer-friendly and extremely practical “technology”? Where were Bank of America and Citibank, with their voluminous resources? Probably on the golf course or lobbying in D.C., not forming research labs to produce such consumer-friendly and competition-smashing tech.

In a recent blog post, I discussed the lack of innovation in the auto industry. The proof? Nearly all cars seem the same. Most people I know can ride to lunch with a friend and, after returning, not be able to tell you the brand of car in which they were transported. Yet we can identify an iPad from across the street. While standardization is important, especially for safety, this reflects laziness among the executive ranks of so many companies. For the auto industry specifically, it seems they’d rather play copy cat than focus on real innovation. Innovation isn’t marketing BS. It’s customers and owners telling their co-workers and neighbors “You gotta get one of these!” When was the last time someone told you that regarding their car, lawn mower, or laptop computer?

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The Fremont, California manufacturing facility now occupied by Tesla Motors was previously a GM/Toyota partnership. This is wonderfully symbolic of the changes we’re about to witness in the auto industry. If you think disruption is just Pandora and Snapchat, think again. Let competitors partner on bland products that motivate consumers to say meh and dread the experience of a visit to their local car dealership or Best Buy. Meanwhile, companies like Tesla Motors, Netflix, Apple, and Google will build the new world atop the boneyard of the old dinosaurs. It’s the phoenix from the ashes, and it’s happening right in front of us.

Don’t partner with your competitors—defeat them. Innovate, disrupt, and blow the other guys away. Yes, there are valid opportunities for “coopetition.” Industry consortiums and standards groups are sometimes essential to progress in the marketplace and the interoperability of products and services from different companies. But allowing the accountants to navigate the ship, relying on economies of scale and rationalized partnerships with your enemies is short-term, borderline desperate thinking.

In today’s world, true innovation is disruptive, sustainable, and genuinely enticing to consumers. The only reason most of us aren’t parking a Tesla Model S in our garage is because of the relatively high cost (a topic about which co-founder and CEO Elon Musk has been very honest). But what about 2017, when Tesla introduces it’s roughly $35,000 Model 3? What about when Nissan gets the Leaf to crank out more than 200 miles from a single charge? What? You don’t want a car that produces virtually no sound, features more storage, produces no harmful exhaust, is super-sporty and fast, and costs a fraction of what’s required for gas-powered vehicles to fuel and maintain? Please forgive my cavalier attitude, but I’d say you’re freaking nuts.

If the company for which you work desires to survive and thrive in the 21st century, it must embrace this spirit of ultra-competitive and reality-based innovation. If it doesn’t, the new guys are going to be purchasing your office building or manufacturing facility to produce what middle class consumers really want—and your company will be relegated to nothing more than an obscure Wikipedia entry.

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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.

Auto Industry: Slow on Tech Innovation

It’s the time of year in America when our kids are back in school and the auto industry has released next year’s models, so let’s talk about consumer tech in cars. It’s nice that even some entry-level automobiles feature cool tech like Bluetooth, backup cameras (mandatory in all cars sold in the United States by 2018), and in-built wireless technologies like 4G. But why do I always get the feeling that the auto industry is continually dragging its heels, always playing catch up with mobile devices and all the wireless tech with which we’re surrounded on a daily basis?

With consumers habituated to fast upgrade cycles for items like smartphones and personal computers, why is the auto industry so bloody slow when it comes to jumping on the same bandwagon? Just like the consumer electronics industry, car companies release new models every year, so they certainly have the opportunity.

tesla model s replacement for blogI can almost understand a conspiracy theorist who might insist that auto manufacturers are colluding in their seeming refusal to embrace new tech and interoperability between our mobile devices and their products. Yes, there was Microsoft Sync in Ford’s automobiles (RIP) and Apple has introduced CarPlay, which began rolling out in a few 2014 models (and works only with Apple’s products; this isn’t an industry standard). But this still feels more like a push from tech titans like Apple and Microsoft than true innovation from the auto industry itself. Simply connecting to our existing mobile devices is part of the equation, but where’s the “gee whiz” stuff?

Where is the Angry Birds or Snapchat of automobiles?

Yes, I do like “new” technologies like LED taillights, adaptive cruise control, and computer-controlled suspension systems. But we’re talking innovation here. While uber-cool, these are tech that have been around for a long time. In fact, it’s a sign of how slow the automobile industry is not only to innovate, but simply to roll out existing technologies based on past innovations. While LED lights are finally beginning to trickle down to even entry-level cars, nice tricks like laser-based adaptive cruise control and sci-fi-inspired head-up displays are still the territory of luxury vehicles.

We expect a culture of affordable innovation from companies like Google, Apple, and Samsung. It’s the foundation of their existence. But the fact that they have to push their tech on the auto industry is sad. Yes, really cool technology is expensive and auto manufacturers don’t want to reduce their already sometimes razor-thin profit margins. I get it. But we also know that truly innovative tech becomes considerably less expensive as more consumers jump on the bandwagon. Any manufacturer that decides to roll out a given technology (LED taillights, for example) across it’s entire catalog will experience such per-unit price discounts that the cost of this tech should not be its primary concern. What should be? Beating the competition by satisfying the tech lust of middle class consumers. But if recession-strapped Americans gobbling up $600 iPads at unheard of rates isn’t enough to convince auto execs of this, what is?

Where are the advanced sound systems that use basic acoustic science to drown out road noise and vastly improve our listening experience? Where is the uttered “down window” that prevents me from taking my hands off the wheel? Just the fact that so many cars manufactured today lack auto-on headlamps is enough to make you cry. Unfortunately, auto industry executives just don’t seem to get it. At least not when it comes to innovations that satisfy consumer demand and recognize dominant social trends.

It’s nice to know that if you were frozen in a cryogenic chamber 35 years ago and awoke today, you could capably drive a 2014 or 2015 model car. Yes, we need standardization. But when I jump in a friend’s sedan and we cruise down the road and I can’t even tell who manufactured the vehicle without looking at its badging, I think we have a problem.

nissan leaf for linkedinWith the distinct exception of Toyota’s Prius hybrid, Nissan’s all-electric LEAF, and anything from Tesla, cars seem to totally lack differentiation. Sometimes it feels like they’re all manufactured by one huge World Car Corp. and they simply offer a wide range of shapes, sizes, luxury levels, and prices. This is especially painful given the price of automobiles. Really, Buick and Kia, the best you can do is Bluetooth, LED lights, and a crappy, difficult-to-navigate touch screen on the dashboard?

Voice navigation and head-up displays are probably the most promising uses of new-tech we’ve seen in a while. Both improve driver attention where it matters: At the road. And both are way-cool and enticing features. But while many of us actually have Bluetooth or backup cameras in our vehicles, how many can control the music or air conditioning in our cars with our voice?

Exactly.

This is probably one of my lousiest blog posts in terms of educating readers or making a good point (like me, chances are you’re simply angrier now). I’m basically just whining. But at $20,000 to $60,000, the value proposition for tech in cars is among the lowest of any consumer purchase. Considering how much we spend on personal transportation, I think we’re all entitled to a bit of whining—whether you drive a Toyota Yaris or a BMW M5.

I sincerely love that Google, Ford, and Volvo are doing some incredible things with advanced perimeter sensing, collision avoidance, and automated parking in their quest for better safety and, eventually, fully autonomous vehicles. Self-driving cars make for great headlines in the media. But while we salivate over this future tech, the cars actually sitting in our driveways aren’t that much different from models from ten or even fifteen years ago—and none of us would use a cell phone or computer from 15 years ago, would we?

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Curt Robbins

[See also Time for Tesla and Electric Car Adoption: Not Why You Think.]


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.