Hydrogen Cars

From the Wait But Why blog post, “How Tesla Will Change the World”:

Musk, for the life of him, cannot understand how anyone could make an argument in favor of hydrogen cars, but it’s confusing because lots of car companies, like Toyota, Honda, and General Motors, are currently pouring big investments into making hydrogen cars. I wanted to understand the disagreement, so I read like 12 articles in favor and opposed to the technology. At the end of it, I’m having a hard time seeing why hydrogen cars would have a more promising future than electric vehicles. For those who want details, here’s a footnote.

Among many reasons hydrogen cars seem inferior to EVs, here are four:

1) Hydrogen cars seem beholden to natural gas, a fossil fuel, in order to extract the hydrogen fuel, while electric cars get cleaner over time as electricity production gets cleaner.

2) When it comes to energy density, driving range, and cost, the best case scenario for hydrogen cells is similar to where EV batteries are now, and EV batteries will get better with time.

3) Hydrogen is a somewhat dangerous and difficult-to-handle substance that’s a nightmare compared to the simple wall-outlet electricity EVs use.

4) Down the road, when the norm is to charge the car up in your garage, it’s going to seem primitive to have to go to a station to fuel up.

In an email exchange I had with Musk about hydrogen cars, he explained it like this:

If you take electricity coming from a solar panel and charge a battery, you can get ~90% efficiency. Simple and cheap. Instead, if you use that electricity to split water, separate the hydrogen with extreme purity, pressurize it to crazy levels (or, even worse, liquefy), transfer it to a giant (even in liquid form) hydrogen storage tank in the car and then recombine it with oxygen to generate electricity, you would be lucky to get ~20% efficiency. Expensive, complex, bulky and super inefficient. It loses on every dimension, including refuel time when pack swap is factored in.

Cost is bad for fuel cells, but that is only one of many bad dimensions. If fuel cells were in any way better than lithium batteries, they would at least be used in satellites, some of which cost over $500 million. They are not.

Finally, if I wasn’t already convinced, this highly-detailed, fairly devastating takedown of the argument hydrogen cars left me feeling eternally puzzled about why the Japanese companies would want to go further down that road.

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