Fuel Cells vs Electric Cars, Who Will win? Toyota/Honda vs. Nissan/Tesla

The battle lines are being drawn. On one side are ranged automotive giants Toyota, Honda and Hyundai pouring billions into hydrogen fuel cells (FCEV), on the other are new upstarts like Tesla and established automotive firms like Nissan committed to the Electric Vehicle (EV) market.

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A bit like the Sony Betamax versus the JVC VHS video cassette recording formats in the ’70s — or Sony and Blu-Ray vs. Toshiba and HD-DVD more recently — the outcome of this monumental tussle will have far reaching ramifications for the industry and the competition will drive innovation and automotive advancement to the benefit of us all.

Unlike Beta/VHS where competing technologies hit the market at more or less the same time, EV has a clear head start on FCEV but like the video cassette market it may be the eventual winner if it is due to the quality of the product as much as the longevity of the experience. With video cassettes, Beta was generally reckoned to offer a better picture quality, in part because it recorded at a higher tape speed, yet its eventual failure had more to do with the fact Beta 1 only lasted 60 minutes compared to VHS’s 120 minutes. That’s the reason Beta is still used today in television production long after it ceded the home video market to VHS.

In a similar way, boosters of fuel cells are hoping the greater range and quicker fueling/recharging will win out over electric vehicles’ head start. The head start comes not so much in the technology, both energy sources share many of the drive train technologies developed in recent years, but in the number of fueling stations.

Toyota’s Investment

Toyota has put billions into the development of it’s Mirai FCEV yet in the UK there are just four fueling stations in the whole country and in the US there are but 12 according to the AFDC — Alternative Fuels Data Center, 10 of which needless to say are in California. Germany, though, is planning 500 hydrogen filling stations creating the infrastructure for a viable market depending on the user and if they are nationwide or just in the main urban areas.

The Mirai is capable of a respectable 340 miles between refueling and takes less time than a gasoline or diesel car, unlike EVs wherein even a rapid charge can take 30 minutes or more. Toyota also makes the point that a fueling station can refuel multiple cars in an hour just like a gasoline/petrol filling station but an EV point can only charge one vehicle, so far that has not been a major issue but if EVs were ever to truly replace gasoline/petrol vehicles charging points would be required at half the parking points in every super market, company office and retail park in the country.

Economically, though, both options remain expensive in terms of capital upfront cost. Subsidies exist in many markets to encourage uptake but the low production runs are still making EV cars relatively expensive.

The Gas Station Conundrum

For the same reason FCEVs are even worse, Toyota’s Mirai is expected to retail in the UK for £66,000, ($100,000 US), comparable to a Tesla but a long way above a comparable gasoline/petrol engine model. Not surprisingly, Toyota is only expecting to sell 30,000 FCEVs in the first five years but according to the Telegraph says “Fuel cells are part of our corporate vision,” and like its Prius which took a long time to take off, they are in it for the long haul.

It will be a fascinating battle of technologies and may result in not one winner but three, conventional fuel, electric and fuel cells. In this struggle, I have yet thrown my hat into the ring as I continue to drive a hydrocarbon-powered, polluting, polar-bear-exterminating, glacier-melting, 4×4, but even I can see the attractions of silent running and low-fuel costs even if they are not yet attractive enough to overcome the capital cost and low range.

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Would I go for FCEV? Not with the lack of a refueling network. That is the Achilles heal in the technology, but in the long-run nor would I bet against Toyota and Honda if they remain committed to the cause. They have changed the shape of the industry in the past, and they could, possibly, just do it again.

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  • I think fuel cells were the technology to strive for 10-15 years ago when the competition was gasoline. But with battery electric cars now in it’s second generation having 200-300 mile range at prices slightly above gasoline cars I don’t see how it’s going to be cost effective to compete with them.

    BEV’s don’t need many super chargers because they are rarely used since people leave their homes each day with a full charge. Those superchargers are only needed on road trips maybe 5-10 times a year.

    Fuel cell cars will need to refuel about once a week so the fueling stations need to be close and convenient to the driver on a day to day basis.

    If you follow the trend line for battery prices you can expect battery cars to be cheaper than gasoline cars in 5-10 years for cars with 300+ mile range.

  • My $17,500 Corolla S goes 350 miles on a single tanks of fuel. What electric car with a 200-300 mile range that has a cost slightly above that were you talking about.

  • The Hydrogen Car is also an Electric Car, Hydrogen can be compress, a car with batteries, with 100 miles or 300 miles, can have a Hydrogen tank to increase the range to 600 miles. These cars have will be cheaper to build in the future, when they technology advances.

  • You say: “Toyota is only expecting to sell 30,000 FCEVs in the first five years” . My understanding is that they’re aiming to hit 30,000 sales per year by 2020.

    Slow burn? Maybe. But the Prius, launched in 1997, didn’t exceed 30,000upa until 2002

  • If refueling and use of fuel cell cars ressembles the experience of refueling and using gas powered cars, and the experience of “refueling” and using battery powered cars ressembles the experience of “refueling” and use of smartphones, fuel cells will win hands down once we have hydrogen “gas pumps” nearby.

    The “range” and time to charge smartphones sucks.

    • Considering how many people are investing in lithium-ion battery production, it sure looks like investors are banking on that seamless “refueling” experience. We, too, have our doubts, Victor.

      Jeff Yoders,


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