Further Proof That Hydrogen Cars Are Stupid

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our universe and hydrogen-powered vehicles produce only a single emission: water. It’s no wonder a handful automakers have touted it as the next-step in “sustainable” transportation, because it looks great upon a cursory examination. But it hasn’t held up under increased scrutiny and numerous manufacturers have been highly critical of fuel cell cars.

Earlier this year, Jaguar Land Rover’s technical design director called hydrogen-powered vehicles a disaster in practical efficiency. Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk went even further, calling the technology “incredibly dumb.” More recently, VW Group also hinted that it thought there wasn’t going to be much of a future for fuel cells. Matthias Mueller’s address at the Frankfurt Auto Show was heavy on electrification and light on hydrogen, with Audi spearheading the technology.

Although, if president of Audi of America Scott Keogh is to be believed, it looks to be a rather dull spear they are using.

“The worst thing you can do is kind of half bake electric, then go off on another science project with fuel cells, then go running to another science project,” Keogh told Automotive News at the show.

Post dieselgate, Volkswagen Group has billions wrapped up in developing electric vehicles, using its Electrify America subsidiary to improve the EV infrastructure in the United States, and collaborating with other automakers to do the same in Europe.

After, and only after, VW has established itself as an electrified dynamo will it bother pursing hydrogen fuel cells with any earnestness. Keogh estimated that Audi would have “limited fleets” of hydrogen-powered test vehicles on the road within five years and would consider vehicles for consumer use sometime after that.

However, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda are pursing hydrogen as a potentially viable energy source while other automakers are snubbing it. So what’s the problem?

Jaguar Land Rover’s technical design director Wolfgang Ziebart described the issue as one of practical efficiency. Hydrogen-powered cars are not yet a green solution and extracting their energy source, abundant as it may be, requires quite a bit of energy. The processed hydrogen is then stored, shipped, and consumed by vehicles that are electrically driven.

“You end up with a well to wheel efficiency of roughly 30 percent for hydrogen, as opposed to more or less well to wheel 70 percent efficiency for a battery electric vehicle,” explained Ziebart. “So the efficiency of putting the electric energy directly into a battery is about twice as high as the efficiency of producing and using hydrogen.”

“If there was a strong reason to have a hydrogen infrastructure, then I think it would be set up, but with this disastrous well-to-wheel relationship, it doesn’t just make sense,” he concluded.

Musk would agree. He has condemned hydrogen fuel cell technology as wasteful in the past, going so far as to suggest other gasses would be easier to live with. “If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick — you should just pick methane, that’s much much easier, or propane,” he said.

With a vested interest in battery-electric vehicles, Musk would obviously prefer drivers get their car’s energy via wires. But, he seems particularly uncharitable toward a hydrogen-based alternative. As compressible gasses go, he says it’s just about the worst one.

There also isn’t much of an infrastructure for hydrogen fueling outside of Pacific Asia. While some areas of Europe and the United States (California, mainly) have small pockets of them, they don’t extend beyond urban centers. That would make it impossible for any hydrogen-powered vehicle to leave the confines of their home territory. Meanwhile, electric charging stations are cropping up everywhere and a carefully plotted course means a BEV would eventually make it across the entire continent.

The only advantage the hydrogen car would have is the time it takes to “refuel.” While a battery-powered car needs hours upon hours to recharge via a standard outlet, even a fast charging station could leave you immobilized for over an hour. Comparatively, gassing up your ride with hydrogen would only take a few minutes to achieve the same range. But you’re not going to find any H-Stations on a road trip and the gas doesn’t come trickling out of the walls of every home that paid its gas bill that month.

Audi says, even after it starts dabbling with hydrogen-powered test vehicles, it won’t be pursuing Honda or Toyota’s plans to help establish an infrastructure to fuel them. It’s far more interested in backing VW Group’s battery-powered cars.

“Every time another manufacturer starts to lean more on EVs and throw more resources at them, it pushes the momentum more towards that solution,” explained Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.

Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, and Hyundai have all scaled down their hydrogen-fueled dreams of late. Chevrolet’s Bolt has proven GM knows what its doing with electrification and Mercedes-Benz has promised a slew of mild-hybrids in the years to come. Hyundai, which looked poised to follow Toyota and Honda, may have developed the Tucson Fuel Cell — but has stated it will be gradually abandoning the technology to focus on battery power.

[Image: Daimler AG]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Vulpine Vulpine on Sep 25, 2017

    The only way I can see using hydrogen as a fuel is if it is used AS a fuel, not converted into some other form. Every conversion uses--wastes--energy that could have been used in a more direct means. Hydrogen can be burned, and burning itself would be more efficient than feeding into a fuel cell. But the greatest waste is in cracking the hydrogen in the first place, using as much or more electricity than feeding said electricity into a battery first. You want hydrogen? Get it raw, don't pull it from hydrocarbons which would release other toxic gasses into the air. You want to burn a hydrocarbon, then burn it in a centralized location where the emissions can be properly trapped and treated and use the electricity generated from such to power vehicles. That serves the purpose of making the pollution more remote AND makes the whole process more efficient than burning them in hundreds of millions of vehicles every day.

  • Makuribu Makuribu on Sep 25, 2017

    Ye cannae change the laws of thermodynamics, Jim. - Scotty It takes a lot of energy to liberate hydrogen from water, methane, methanol, whatever. You also have to make it at 99.9999% purity because any contaminants could poison the fuel cell catalyst, which at the moment is platinum. Platinum isn't cheap or plentiful, and you need a lot more for a PEM fuel cell than you need in a catalytic converter. Hydrogen is the lightest, least dense element in the universe. Unless you want every fuel cell vehicle towing a Hindenberg size gas bag behind it, you have to compress the gas. A lot. To get hydrogen compressed to a density that makes sense (around 10,000 psi) takes 30% of the energy that the hydrogen produces in burning it. That's a hell of a penalty, even if you use it in a modified internal combustion engine, as Ford has done. To liquefy hydrogen (as BMW has tried) is even more energy intensive, and then you have a cryogenic liquid at -432 F, with constant boil off from a massively insulated tank. You can vent the hydrogen gas when you aren't driving, or run it through a fuel cell and help power your house when you're parked. The infrastructure is complex. So unless leprechauns and unicorns can exhale 99.9999% pure H2 @ 10,000 psi, and poop platinum for free, it ain't gonna be viable on a global scale. He's dead, Jim. - Bones

  • Mike Audi has been using a3 a4 a5 a6 a7 a8 for a long time and i think it makes sense. But, they are rumored to be changing it all again within a year ir two.
  • Golden2husky Match the tool to the job. This would be ideal for those who have dreadful, traffic filled commutes. I'd certainly go the SE route - wheel sizes are beyond bordering on dumb today and 17s are plenty. Plus the added mileage is a real advantage. I would have been able to commute to work with very little gas usage. The prior Prius' were dreadful to drive - I gave mine back to the fleet guy at work for something else - but this seems like they hit their mark. Now, about that steering wheel and dash design...No mention of the driving aids for improving mileage but I'll assume they are very much like they were in earlier models - which is to say superb. A bit of constructive criticism - on a vehicle like this the reviewer should really get into such systems as mileage is the reason for this car. Just like I would expect to see performance systems such as launch control, etc to be commented on for performance models.
  • Arthur Dailey Rootes Motors actually had a car assembly facility in Scarborough ( a suburb in the east end of Toronto), during the 1950's and early 1960s. It was on the south-west corner of Warden and Eglinton located at 1921 Eglinton Avenue East. The building still exists and you can still see it on Google maps. That part of Scarboro was known as the Golden Mile and also had the Headquarters for VW Canada, and the GM van plant.Also at 2689 Steeles Avenue West in Toronto (the south east corner of Steeles and Petrolia) is what is still shown on Google Maps as 'The Lada Building'. It still has large Lada signs and the Lada logo on the east and west facades of the building. You can see these if you go to the street view. Not sure how much longer they will be there as the building just went up for sale this month. In Canada as well as Ladas and Skodas we also got Dacias. But not Yugos. Canada also got a great many British vehicles until the US-Canada trade pact due to Commonwealth connections. Due to different market demands, Canadians purchased per capita more standards and smaller cars including hatches. Stripped versions, generally small hatchbacks, with manual transmission, windows, door locks and no A/C were known as 'Quebec specials' as our Francophone population had almost European preferences in vehicles. As noted in previous posts, for decades Canadian Pontiacs were actually Chevs with Pontiac bodies and brightwork. This made them comparatively less expensive and therefore Pontiac sold better per capita in Canada than in the USA.
  • Ajla As a single vehicle household with access to an available 120v plug a PHEV works about perfectly. My driving is either under 40 miles or over 275 miles. The annual insurance difference between two car (a $20K ev and $20K ICE) and single car ($40K PHEV) would equal about 8 years of Prius Prime oil changes.
  • Ronin Let's see the actuals first, then we can decide using science.What has been the effect of auto pollution levels since the 70s when pollution control devices were first introduced? Since the 80s when they were increased?How much has auto pollution specifically been reduced since the introduction of hybrid vehicles? Of e-vehicles?We should well be able to measure the benefits by now, by category of engine. We shouldn't have to continue to just guess the benefits. And if we can't specifically and in detail measure the benefits by now, it should make a rational person wonder if there really are any real world benefits.