The Last Car You Would Ever Buy — Literally

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"The Last Car You Would Ever Buy — Literally"

fcx-clarity.jpgTechnology 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 “exchangeable 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.

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16 Responses to The Last Car You Would Ever Buy — Literally

  1. Ben says:

    Does it still have a steering wheel? Cause I’m waiting for a joystick.

  2. Greg N says:

    Exceptionally well written, even by your high standards.

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks. And I even got to mention my daughter!

  4. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Thieves will steal these cars to get the platinium from the fuel cell stacks as well as the expensive alloys used for the entire hydrogen fuel system.
    They will rip out the electric motors to get the copper.

    Also the hydrogen storage tank will have to be removed ca every 5 years for testing as is done for all tanks containing highly-reactive compressed gases. Who is going to pay for this service? (Tanks containing inert gases such as nitrogen, argon, helium, etc at high pressure (i.e.>2000 psi) are tested every 10 years).

    Will the insurance companies insure these cars? Probably not.

  5. steve says:

    Great piece. Now, can someone please get this through to CARB?

  6. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Helo Steve!

    As analytical and organic chemist, I’ve used compressed gas clylinders of nitrogen, oxygen, helium, argon, flourine, chlorine and hydrogen for about 40 years. And you exercise great caution with these because you learn that pressure regulators can fail at anytime. When this happens the service lines immediately go to tank pressure. And this is very scary when the tank contains hydrogen at 3,000 psi.

  7. Harry Kellogg says:

    One great flaw in your dismissal of using hydrogen. It can be made by using wind/solar/tidal/wave energy to seperate H from the O2 in H2O. You should just think of hydrogen is just a storage medium for solar and tidal energy.

    I most heartily agree that producing it from natural gas is the height of stupidity. But writing it off without looking at the alternative methods for producing it is also not too smart.

    The best solution in my mind is to use alternative energy to seperate it from water, store it in hugh storage units located where we now store fossil fuels and use it to generate electricity when the sun don’t shine and the wind don’t blow.

    Don’t dismiss the most abundant and truly renewable energy storage substance we have because it is not perfected yet. I would suggest that you open your eyes to the possibilities.

  8. Ronald says:

    Harry,

    I think you should read the article again and try to pick up on the details. The idea that Hydrogen can be used as a vehicle fuel has lost favor with a lot of people. It is just not a good idea. Politicians and Engineering budgets that don’t go away are keeping it going.

  9. Ronald says:

    Joe,

    I saw this article and I thought it made sense.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/jun/20/travelandtransport.carbonemissions

    I know in some places they use liters per 100 kilometers for their fuel per distance measure. Maybe we should be using gallons per 100 miles for the same reasons.

  10. Harold Pierce Jr says:

    Hydrogen’s low energy density disqualifies it from being used as a fuel transportation. At an initial service pressure of 5,000 psi, there is only about 30 g of hydrogen per liter. Gasoline has about 100 g of hydrogen per liter.

    There are just too many technical problems associated with use of hydrogen that disqualifies it for use as a fuel.

    Do you really want to get in a car with tank of hydrogen at 5,000 psi. I don’t think so.

  11. Claudio says:

    Very valid points.

    EXCEPT, that in reference to the Toyota Prius, which is far less green than is widely acknowledged.

    Hybrid cars require more factories to produce their two engines, and the batteries that they then need. If you consider the carbon footprint of everything concerning the cars production and their usage, a Hybrid engine is not actually as ‘green’ as a very efficient petrol or diesel engine.

    This has been shown in cars such as the VW Polo Bluemotion, and the BMW 118d. The prius, In my opinion, is for making people pleased with themselves, and appearing to be ‘saving the planet’. If they were as environmentally conscious, as it appears that they feel the need to shout and scream about, they would walk, cycle or use a bus.

  12. hapa says:

    If they were as environmentally conscious, as it appears that they feel the need to shout and scream about, they would walk, cycle or use a bus.

    so you’re supporting:

    * moving to compact urban design to facilitate walking
    * improving and extending bicycle infrastructure
    * greening, extending, and improving the user-friendliness of transit

    totally agree!

  13. Andreas says:

    Hello,

    here are just a few comments on the article.

    1) Cost of a fuel cell car: It is true that today building a fuel call is prohibitively expensive. One of the reasons is that today’s fuel cell use platinum which is expensive. But that may change within a decade or so. There are proposals to build fuel cells with different catalysts which would make fuel cells cars roughly as expensive as building a regular car. See the research done at the MIT chemistry department as an example. Most experts today believe that within 10 years it will be possible to produce a fuel cell at about $30/kW, two to three times less than today and about the same as today’s engines.

    2) Cost of producing hydrogen: It is true that today most of the hydrogen is produced at a cost that is prohibitive when compared to the cost of producing gas. To make hydrogen cost-competitive with gas, it would need to be produced at around $3/kh of hydrogen produced. Not too long ago, hydrogen production costs were many multiples of that, so way out of reach. But based on intensive research over the past decade or so, the cost has in fact fallen dramatically and is now down to about $4-$6/kg, depending on the production method. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but that is roughly the range. So not not too bad, but of course still way too expensive. However, it is believed that the cost of producing hydrogen will indeed drop below $3/kg within the next decade or so, making it cost-competitive with gas. See the US department of energy’s website, for example, for more details.

    3) Producing hydrogen from renewable sources: It is true that today most of the hydrogen is produced from natural gas, which is not a renewable resource. Here research seems a bit further away from reaching the cost target of $3/kg, but here too intensive research is underway to cut the cost of producing hydrogen from wind, solar, biomass and a variety of other renewable sources down to $3/kg, but probably not in the next decade. Therefore in the short/medium term producing hydrogen from natural gas will be dominant, but in the long term, meaning in about 10-15 years or so, production technologies from renewable technologies may prove to be cost-competitive.

    4) Other: Of course, there are many other issues to be addressed before a hydrogen economy can become reality, such as space- and weight-efficient storage of hydrogen, a delivery infrastructure, safety, etc. But even here, it is generally believed that these can be resolved within the next 10-15 years.

    Given all that, I don’t see why we won’t one day buy a fuel cell car.

    Of course, one could say that all these predictions are too optimistic, that in fact there will be unsurmountable barriers in technology, cost, etc.

    But I don’t think so! People always underestimate the creativity of human beings. Making predictions about the future based on TODAY’s constraints and problems may not be the right way to go about things.

    About twenty years ago, nobody believed that solar will one day be ready as an economically viable alternative for powering individual homes (if blogs had existed back then, I presume a similar one to this one may have been written then). And look what happened. I power my entire house quite nicely with a few solar panels that easily fit on the roof of my single family home.

    [JR: Hope springs eternal, but not hydrogen. The difference between hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and solar panels is that FCs were invented more than 160 years ago and still are not a commercial product. Solar panels were invented 50 years ago and over the past three decades have seen an astonishing growth rate in sales and performance while dropping in price by more than a factor of 10.]

  14. Earl Killian says:

    Andreas, you concentrate on cost vs. gasoline in your assertions, but that misses the primary problem with the production and use of hydrogen: efficiency. It takes 2-4x as much renewable energy (4x today, 2x if all of the aggressive goals for electrolysis and fuel cell efficiency are met) to power a mile of driving using hydrogen as it does to send that electricity directly over the grid to plug-in vehicles. Why would you want to build 2-4x more windmills to power vehicles than necessary? It is a waste, pure and simple.

  15. Andreas says:

    Earl, good post. The ultimate goal of course must be that hydrogen from renewable sources should cost no more than gasoline on an equivalent energy basis.

    However, I believe that the number I quoted already takes the total production cost into account. For example, the US department of energy (www.eere.energy.gov) says that “since one kilogram of hydrogen contains approximately the same energy as one gallon of gasoline, the hydrogen cost goal was originally set by the US department of energy at $1.50/kg (or $1.50/gge) to be equivalent to the untaxed cost of gasoline”

    So, with the recent rise in gasoline costs, we are back to $3/kg or so on an energy equivalent basis.

    Of course, in the long run, oil prices may fall again, so I believe that really one ought to be able to produce hydrogen at $1.50/kg in the long run, to remain economically viable. In any case, you are right: what matters is the TOTAL COST of producing hydrogen.

    Comment on efficiency: Yes, it is correct that today it takes 2-4x as much renewable energy to power a mile of driving — today. But what if the TOTAL cost of all the wind mills, solar cells, and other, eventually falls to less than $1.50/kg of hydrogen? Then I don’t care whether I need 2-4x more windmills, or 2-4x the solar cell surface area.

    Today, we are far from that. But one day we’ll get there. BTW, the guys at MIT believe that within 10 years solar-based production of hydrogen through electrolysis will achieve the mentionedn cost goal.

  16. Donna says:

    I went to California’s first hydrogen fuel gas station, a Shell station on Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles. This choice was by chance, and I was taken aback by all the warning danger signs near the hydrogen fuel pumps for people with a battery-packed device (cell phone/camera) or cigarette or something flammable. When I asked about signs, I was told that keeping a 25 feet distance if on cell phone or using battery-packed camera was only recommended by fire department, otherwise the hydrogen fuel pumps were considered safe. What do you think? Donna