Earlier this week Daimler, Ford (NYSE:F), and Nissan forged a venture to bring fuel cell vehicles into the mainstream within four years .
Fuel cells generate electricity in a fuel stack where hydrogen, which is stored usually in a high-pressure tank, reacts with oxygen from the atmosphere. The good news is that the only emissions from a fuel cell are water vapor and heat .
Of course, producing hydrogen can contribute to pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, but much less than what's spewed out from fossil fuel-powered vehicles, and even less than what's emitted during the production of electricity for electric-powered vehicles.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, gasoline-powered vehicles today emit 450 grams of CO2-equivalent per mile, electricity production for use in battery electric vehicles puts out 230 grams, and hydrogen for fuel cell electric vehicles produced using natural gas emits 200 grams.
A major downside to fuel cell vehicles has been in how to store the hydrogen onboard. The most cost-effective method has been to store it as a gas under high pressure, but those tanks are large and heavy. It can also be stored as a liquid at minus 423 degrees F. Since the liquid is denser than gas, the tank can be smaller, but there are complications keeping a gas at such low temperatures. The long-term solution may involve storing the hydrogen in a solid form.
Batteries included ... for a price
If the above three giants of the automotive industry can indeed put their heads, and their wallets, together, and come up with an affordable fuel cell system, it could provide the solution to the biggest problem plaguing the electric car today -- the battery.
As an example, let's use what is perhaps the highest profile plug-in electric vehicle on the road, Tesla's (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S sedan. It has the looks and performance of a luxury sedan. The company touts the car's neck snapping acceleration, which can slam it from zero-to-60 mph in 4.4 seconds – and that's in spite of the Model S weighing over 4,600 pounds .
That poundage comes from the battery. A comparably sized gasoline-powered Jaguar XJ sedan weighs almost 800 pounds less than a Model S . If the Tesla's electric motor were powered by a fuel cell weighing much less than that battery, it would be scary to think of the performance.
And then there's the cost of batteries. Last year, Tesla was charging $40,000 to replace the 53-k-Wh battery pack in its Roadster model . However, the company has come up with a cheaper range of replacement prices for the Model S batteries: $12,000 for the 85-k-Wh, $10,000 for the 60-k-Wh, and $8,000 for the 40-k-Wh .
If that seems like a relative bargain, check out the small print. To get those replacement batteries at those prices, the Model S buyer must pay for them within the first 90 days of ownership, and won't be eligible to obtain them until after the eighth year of ownership .
I don't even want to think about how much gasoline would have to cost at the pump before a Tesla saves one any money in fuel costs.
But the biggest downside to the battery-powered vehicle has to be range anxiety. That neuroses hasn't yet been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but just give it time.
What would one do when that e-meter gets closer to empty? There aren't yet enough vehicle recharging stations scattered about – and even if there were, charging a battery takes quite a bit longer than filling up a gas tank or, in the case of a fuel cell powered electric car, a hydrogen tank.
Again, as an example, the Tesla: In spite of its sleek beauty, the very quickest a Model S can be charged is at the rate of 300 miles of range per hour of charge, or 30 minutes for charging half the battery. But that's only for the more expensive specially-equipped models, and then only at so-called supercharger stations located along major interstates . Charging at home, or wherever else there's an available AC outlet, would take one hour per 62 miles of charge, or one hour per 31 miles of charge, depending on the voltage.
To be fair, hydrogen-refueling stations aren't a common sight either, but at least if one could be found, thumb twiddling could be kept to a minimum.
One interesting aspect of the fuel cell partnership could have a direct effect on the above-mentioned Tesla.
Daimler, back in 2009, bought a nearly 10% equity stake in the company . At that time, Tesla was working with Daimler in the development of an electric version of Daimler's smart car. Since then, the deal has grown to include Tesla building the powertrain for an electric Mercedes-Benz .
The question then arises, is Daimler planning on abandoning the development of battery-electric vehicles if and when the fuel cell option becomes viable? If so, could that mean Daimler dropping out of its partnership with Tesla, and becoming an electric luxury car rival with a more practical power alternative? Or could it mean an even deeper involvement with Tesla, as Daimler provides its fuel cell system to power future Tesla models?
Or is the battery industry the only thing at risk?
Fool contributor Dan Radovsky has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Ford and Tesla Motors . The Motley Fool owns shares of Ford and Tesla Motors . Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not 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.