Technology Review asked me to comment about the hype over the new Honda fuel-cell car, which the company optimistically calls “the world’s first hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicle intended for mass production.” The key word here is “intended.” Here it is:
Would you buy a car that costs 10 times as much as a hybrid gasoline-electric, like the Prius? What if I told you it had half the range of the hybrid? What if I told you most cities didn’t have a single hydrogen fueling station? Not interested yet? This should be the deal closer: what if I told you it wouldn’t have lower greenhouse-gas emissions than the hybrid?
Other than the traditional media, which is as distracted by shiny new objects as my 16-month-old daughter, nobody should get terribly excited when a car company rolls out its wildly impractical next-generation hydrogen car. Too many miracles are required for it to be a marketplace winner.
Take Honda’s new FCX Clarity (… please. Okay, I left that bit of snarkiness out of the TR piece). As The New York Times reported, “The cars cost several hundred thousand dollars each to produce,” although Honda’s president Takeo Fukui “said that should drop below $100,000 in less than a decade as production volumes increase.”
But why would production volumes increase for a car that delivers no real value to the consumer and has no significant societal benefit to motivate government support? Answer: They wouldn’t, so prices may never drop below $100,000.
And who, exactly, is going to buy a car that can’t easily find fuel? On the other hand, who is going to build tens of thousands of fueling stations — price tag $2 million apiece or more — until the cars are wildly successful? That is the so-called chicken-and-egg problem, which is especially acute for hydrogen. After all, why should oil companies spend tens of billions of dollars building a hydrogen fueling infrastructure, which at best will take away business from their tremendously profitable gasoline sales, and at worst will be a complete business loss, assuming, as now seems likely, that hydrogen cars never catch on?
And yet the media can’t get enough of these hi-tech Edsels. The New York Times, of all places, writes:
Fuel cells have an advantage over electric cars, whose batteries take hours to recharge and use electricity, which, in the case of the United States, China and many other countries, is often produced by coal-burning power plants.
Is the Times unaware that electricity is pretty much available everywhere, whereas hydrogen is essentially available nowhere? Is the Times unaware that the per-mile fuel cost of an electric car is probably one-quarter that of a hydrogen fuel-cell car? Is the Times unaware that electric-car manufacturers are working on “exchangable batteries,” which would make a battery swap about as fast as it takes to refuel a car with hydrogen?
Most egregious: Where, exactly, does the Times think hydrogen comes from? Santa Claus? More than 95 percent of U.S. hydrogen is made from natural gas, so running a car on hydrogen doesn’t reduce net carbon dioxide emissions compared with a hybrid like the Prius running on gasoline. Okay, you say, can’t hydrogen be made from carbon-free sources of power, like wind energy or nuclear? Sure, but so can electricity for electric cars. And this gets to the heart of why hydrogen cars would be the last car you would ever want to buy: they are wildly inefficient compared with electric cars.
Electric cars — and plug-in hybrid cars — have an enormous advantage over hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles in utilizing low-carbon electricity. That is because of the inherent inefficiency of the entire hydrogen fueling process, from generating the hydrogen with that electricity to transporting this diffuse gas long distances, getting the hydrogen in the car, and then running it through a fuel cell — all for the purpose of converting the hydrogen back into electricity to drive the same exact electric motor you’ll find in an electric car.
The total power-plant-to-wheels efficiency with which a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is likely to utilize low-carbon electricity is 20 to 25 percent — and the process requires purchasing several expensive pieces of hardware, including the electrolyzer and delivery infrastructure. The total efficiency of simply charging an onboard battery with the original low-carbon electricity, and then discharging the battery to run the electric motor in an electric car or plug-in, however, is 75 to 80 percent. That is, an electric car will travel three to four times farther on a kilowatt-hour of renewable or nuclear power than a hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle will.
No wonder The Wall Street Journal reported this in March:
Top executives from General Motors Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. Tuesday expressed doubts about the viability of hydrogen fuel cells for mass-market production in the near term and suggested their companies are now betting that electric cars will prove to be a better way to reduce fuel consumption and cut tailpipe emissions on a large scale.
So why do a few car companies persist in rolling out generation after generation of overhyped Hindenburgs? Maybe it’s because they keep getting so much free positive publicity.
The Times story includes not a single critic of hydrogen cars and reads like a Honda press release. The Times opens the story by saying that the FCX “may have just moved the world one step closer to a future free of petroleum.” Not quite.
The story does end with some illumination: “For now, the first batch of customers seem drawn by the car’s novelty as much as anything else.” The same might be said of the media.
If you build it, the media will come, but don’t hold your breath waiting for mass-market hydrogen-car buyers. In two years, GM and Toyota have promised to deliver plug-in hybrids. That will be a real step closer to a future free of petroleum.