Recently, Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk expressed, in no uncertain terms, his dislike for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or FCVs. And why wouldn't he feel that way? He's the CEO of Tesla, a company that's famous for its battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, the Model S. But is he correct in his opinion? Or was his statement simply an attack against a superior type of green energy?
Despite claims that they'll never be viable, FCVs are coming. At this year's Tokyo Motor Show, Toyota Motors (NYSE:TM) will unveil its concept FCV. And although it's just a concept, Toyota plans to launch its FCV in 2015. In addition, Daimler's (NASDAQOTH:DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz, Ford (NYSE:F), and Renault-Nissan formed a partnership earlier this year with the goal of rolling out production of FCVs in 2017.
Moreover, Hyundai Motor (NASDAQOTH:HYMTF) has already developed a production fuel-cell electric vehicle, the iX35, and just delivered its first line-produced ix35 to Copenhagen, Denmark. Plus, Hyundai said it plans to release 1,000 ix35s by 2015, and 10,000 more shortly after
More pointedly, noted fuel-cell skeptic Steven Chu, a Nobel prize-winning physicist and U.S. secretary of energy between 2009 and 2013, recently stated that hydrogen reforming advances and lower natural gas prices have made a fuel-cell future more likely and less far away, according to the Telegraph.
The battle heats up
As I've previously stated, BEVs have a number of issues, not the least of which is that they're not really carbon-friendly thanks to their lithium-ion battery. In addition, they're more expensive than internal combustion engine vehicles, or ICEs. They also take a long to charge, and unless you're driving a Model-S -- the least carbon-friendly BEV -- your range is severely limited.
On the other hand, BEVs are generally better for the environment than most ICE vehicles. They help reduce our dependency on foreign oil, and the price for li-ion batteries has dropped over the years.
FCVs also have a number of issues. The catalyst used in a fuel cell is platinum, which makes it incredibly expensive. Plus, there isn't an existing hydrogen infrastructure.
However, hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and thanks to recent advances, the production of hydrogen is becoming more energy-efficient. In addition, FCVs reduce our dependency on oil, can be refueled in minutes, and have a driving range similar to that of an ICE vehicle. And just as with BEVs, as technology advances, the price of FCVs will drop.
Car manufacturers bet on hydrogen
Perhaps one of the best indicators of the benefits of hydrogen over batteries comes from the auto giants themselves. Tony Whitehorn, Hyundai U.K.'s president and CEO, said hydrogen is the ultimate solution: "Battery electric vehicles are a great technology, but like the fax machine they are only temporary, and there is a great deal of consumer resistance toward them for all manner of reasons, including range and the time it takes to recharge them."
Professor Thomas Weber, board member for Group Research and Mercedes-Benz Cars Development, told Green Car Reports, "We are convinced that fuel cell vehicles will play a central role for zero-emission mobility in the future."
And Toyota Chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada considers hybrids like the Prius to simply be a long-term bridge to alternative-fuel vehicles. As reported by Ecomento, he recently said:
We have made big progress in developing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Toyota will be able to offer that, in a sedan, around 2015. A fuel cell vehicle has zero tailpipe emissions just like an electric vehicle. But it does not have issues of driving range and charging time that EVs have.
Who will win?
Car manufactures have spoken, and they're putting their considerable resources behind FCVs. Will it pay off? I think it will. FCVs have a number of benefits that trump BEVs. As such, while Elon Musk may continue to espouse the problems with hydrogen, the only thing that does is make me worry about the future of Tesla. Is the Model S a great car? Yes. Is it the future of green technology? I doubt it. Consequently, if you're looking for your next great auto stock, I'd consider any of the companies mentioned here that are betting on hydrogen.
Fool contributor Katie Spence has no position in any stocks mentioned. Follow her on Twitter: @TMFKSpence. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors and owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.