What happened to hydrogen-powered cars?

Just the name hydrogen fuel can bring about vivid images of the Hindenburg disaster — but automakers have been working for a long time to make these cars work viably and safely for the public, without the famous fiery crash that we all have in mind. That being said, these cars, also known as fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) have largely gone the way of the dodo in the last few years with interest in them dying off. But how did that happen, what were the problems and is it possible that this technology is still viable?

Why you aren't seeing many hydrogen cars on the road

Beyond the marketing disaster of having one of the most vivid images of a crash of all time being directly linked in many people's minds to the fuel source that would be powering their personal vehicle, there are a few issues that have made hydrogen FCEVs less viable than the standard electric vehicle we see today. The first of which is the availability of support. Hydrogen FCEVs require specialized fueling stations in order to work. Unlike an electric vehicle (EV) these cars can't be charged at home and must go to a hydrogen gas station. The issue is, there aren't that many in North America. Looking at a map from the U.S. Department of Energy, there are only a handful of hydrogen refueling stations in the region, with every single one being near the corridor between San Francisco and Los Angeles. For many people, having a car brings them freedom, so being locked to a specific region by your vehicle can be off-putting for many.

This technology is relatively young — and the lack of support is understandable with the flood of EVs entering the market. However, this lack of immediate and widespread support has also led to the costs associated with owning one of these automobiles being higher. Take fuel for example. According to the California Hydrogen Business Council, a kilogram of hydrogen costs around double what an equivalent amount of gas (around two gallons) would. While many consumers are willing to pay extra premiums to ensure that they are reducing their impact on the world's carbon footprint — paying double is beyond what many view as a reasonable sacrifice.

Another issue that hydrogen cars face is that they're currently just not powerful enough for many day-to-day uses. Car and Driver reports that in an examination of the fuel cells of the Toyota Mirai (a popular choice for an FCEV) alone are not enough, providing only 120 horsepower and creating a situation where the car must use a high-voltage additional battery in order to be able to accelerate. Furthermore, they state that hydrogen fuel is best for providing steady power output. This might be okay if speed didn't also increase the demand for fuel by up to 10-20 times as city driving, lowering the effective range of the cars for anything outside of city driving.

Are hydrogen cars still viable?

In short, the answer is both yes and no. The current rise of EVs has certainly been meteoric, and their growing ease of use for consumers and high levels of investment from both governments and automobile manufacturers has made them the safest bet for a green revolution in auto technology. One way to look at this situation is that EVs are Blu-Ray discs, while FCEVs are HD DVDs, both viable technologies focused on achieving the same ends — but one has won out as the standard of choice.

While you won't be seeing many hydrogen vehicles on the roads as some may have predicted back when the technology made its commercial debut in 2013 the technology itself does remain a viable and more environmentally friendly option for powering vehicles. It does look like the FCEV market is heading towards a slow decline, but expect this idea to be reiterated and further experimented on to reduce costs, increase travel distance and make hydrogen refueling more viable. The technology works, it just needs more refinement and higher levels of investment. For now, though, EVs are looking like the clear winner and are much easier for the consumer.

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