Which will be the car of the future?
The only electric car Toyota currently sells in the USA is the Mirai, but it’s an electric vehicle (EV) with a twist. It does not get its electricity from a large battery pack, but from a hydrogen fuel cell instead. Toyota firmly believes that hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (FCVs) are the automotive power source of the future, unlike Tesla and Volkswagen, who are committed to battery electric vehicles (BEVs). So what are the advantages and disadvantages of FCVs and do they have a future?
There are currently only three FCVs on sale in America:
- Toyota Mirai, with a range of 402 miles
- Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, with a range of 360 miles
- Hyundai NEXO Fuel Cell, with a range of 380 miles
On paper, the Toyota Mirai struggles to make a case. With 182 horsepower and 221 lb-ft in a vehicle weighing more than 4,300 pounds, its acceleration figure from 0-60 mph is a slow nine seconds. In terms of efficiency, its EPA-estimated range is a good 402 miles, matching the best BEVs currently available, but not beating them. Over the past nine years, just 8,931 FCVs were sold in America and sales crashed to less than 1,000 in 2020. Is the FCV done for?
How FCVs Work
We all know how BEVs work – they use large rechargeable batteries that are charged via an electrical outlet or charger to drive electric motors that power the car. An FCV also uses electric motors to drive the wheels, but its electricity is generated by a fuel cell. Using compressed hydrogen stored in on-board tanks and oxygen from the air, the fuel cell generates electricity through a chemical reaction, only generating heat and water as waste products.
The Advantages Of FCVs
There are many advantages to FCVs in comparison to BEVs and here are a few:
- They don’t rely on the electricity grid. FCVs don’t place additional load on the electricity grid, which can be a boon where the infrastructure is old and has trouble coping with peak demand.
- They don’t require a lifestyle change. They can simply be filled up in few minutes, like a gas car, using a similar pump – where filling stations are available – and they offer a decent range.
- They don’t require brand-new infrastructure. It’s easier to add hydrogen pumps to filling stations than to set up charging networks.
- They offer a good range. Although the ranges of the three above-mentioned FCVs aren’t great compared to gas cars’, they’re all among the best of what BEVs can currently offer – and many BEVs are worse. This could be important for heavy-vehicle applications, where FCVs might be better for hauling heavy loads – an area where BEVs still perform poorly.
- It’s easier to store hydrogen long-term. Hydrogen can be stored in tanks long-term, to be instantly available, whereas electricity storage, generation, and availability can be somewhat more unreliable.
- They work better in cold weather. FCVs work better than BEVs in cold weather, where the latter can experience notably reduced capacity and range.
The Advantages Of BEVs
Compared to FCVs, these are BEVs’ biggest advantages:
- Their initial costs are lower. It is more expensive to produce an FCV and its hydrogen fuel source than a BEV and its electricity supply and this gap is likely to widen as better, cheaper, and more energy-dense batteries are developed that will likely approach a cost of $50 per kWh within the next decade.
- Their energy usage is far more efficient. Studies indicate that BEVs’ well-to-wheel efficiency is typically between 70 and 90 percent. Only around eight percent of energy is lost in the transportation of electricity before it arrives in a BEV’s battery. The process of converting the electricity into motive force in the electric motors is responsible for another loss of around 18 percent. In the case of an FCV, around 45 percent of energy is lost during the initial hydrogen production due to electrolysis. Of that, another 55 percent is lost in the conversion process into electricity inside the vehicle’s fuel cell. For the same distance traveled, a fuel cell would require two to three times more energy, with a resultant well-to-wheel efficiency of between 25 and 35 percent. This represents FCVs’ biggest – and possibly deal-breaking – disadvantage.
- Electricity’s cost and energy balance advantage. Studies have shown that electricity is still cheaper compared to the cost of the energy consumption to produce synthetic fuels and hydrogen. Also, these fuels don’t offer a convincingly better alternative in terms of an ecologically sound solution unless their production makes use of 100 percent renewable energy. Electricity production is getting greener daily and when the process efficiency and the composition of the current and foreseeable electrical energy mix are considered, electricity production has a far better energy balance.
- Better infrastructure. While hydrogen filling stations are supposed to be easy to set up, the infrastructure is still mostly lacking and there is insufficient demand to incentivize its improvement. With the current sales of hydrogen vehicles being less than 1,000 per year in the US, FCVs can only be operated in very limited areas and mainly in California. With many major BEV charging networks like Tesla’s Supercharger and VW’s Electrify America networks rapidly expanding, BEV charging options are becoming more numerous by the day. And, of course, anybody can charge a BEV at home.
There does seem to be a future for FCVs in the foreseeable future in terms of heavy hauling, where they make a lot more ecological and economic sense. For cars, the technology is likely to lose the race due to the higher initial cost of the car, the higher fuel cost, and the lack of infrastructure. However, the final nail in the coffin is that the well-to-wheel inefficiency of FCVs is a waste of precious resources and energy. With many companies now starting to specialize in BEV battery recycling on a large scale, the future certainly looks like it’s made up of BEVs.