Electric vehicles are becoming more mainstream and continue to gain momentum, both in the U.S. and internationally. But there's another type of emission-free vehicle creeping up on consumers -- hydrogen fuel cell cars -- and the discussion surrounding them feels oddly similar to that a few years ago about electric vehicles.
How does a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle work?
In its most basic form, hydrogen fuel is stored in the vehicle's tank, much like gasoline. When prompted, such as on acceleration, hydrogen is pushed to the fuel cell stacks, where it's combined with oxygen. The chemical reaction generates electricity to power the engine. The only by-product is water vapor.
A crude definition would put it like this: A hydrogen fuel cell car is just like a hybrid, only instead of using an internal combustion engine to power the car, the hydrogen fuel cell does the work.
Why are these cars better than traditional vehicles?
Hydrogen cars have several advantages. For starters, they don't pump harmful chemicals and toxic gas into Earth's atmosphere. In a world of consumers who are ever more conscious of their health and that of the environment, this is certainly a plus.
Fuel efficiency is expected to be attractive, too. Consumers aren't just becoming more environmentally conscious; they're also looking to fuel efficiency to ease the stress on their wallets. Hydrogen fuel cell cars are attractive because they can travel 300 to 400 miles per filling, while getting close to 60 miles per gallon, as Toyota's (NYSE:TM) converted Highlander SUV does.
According to Toyota, the company has been working on this technology for the past 20 years, and it plans to finally introduce its hydrogen fuel cell car in 2015 in Japan, before bringing it to the United States. Have a look:
The price tag for the Toyota FCV is not yet known, but it's expected to cost less than $100,000. The Japanese version is expected to price near 7 million yen, or roughly $69,000.
The challenges ahead
Unlike electric vehicles, which generally charge overnight at the customer's home or take around 30 minutes at a charging station, hydrogen fuel cell cars take about the same amount of time to fill as a standard gasoline-powered car.
Another thing that will be roughly equivalent to traditional cars is the price to fill up. As Toyota states on its Web page dedicated to its FCV vehicle, "Hydrogen fuel pricing is in development, but we expect the cost of operation to be similar to a gasoline vehicle."
And while it's a plus that hydrogen fuel can be developed domestically, reducing the United States' dependency on foreign oil, consumers are likely to view the similar cost to gasoline as a negative.
However, it is worth mentioning that while the actual vehicle does not emit pollutants, the production of hydrogen for the vehicle does. Although it can be produced with renewable resources, such as solar or wind power, today's most common form is through "steam reform," which involves natural gas and does create greenhouse gas emissions. This is still better, though, than the pollutants produced by today's popular internal combustion engine.
Infrastructure is another problem. Currently, most of the hydrogen fueling stations are in California. According to Toyota, it expects there will be 20 fueling stations in the state by 2015, 45 by 2016, and 100 by 2024.
Connecticut and South Carolina are the only other states to have public hydrogen fuel stations -- each with one apiece.
For perspective, there are over 8,500 electric charging stations scattered across the United States and customers have the convenient option of charging at home.
While hydrogen fuel cell cars have attractive driving ranges, solid fuel economy, and a much less harmful effect on the environment than traditional automobiles, the very early stage developments of the vehicle may make it hard for consumers to get excited.
In my mind, consumers will have a tough time justifying the price of Toyota's fuel cell vehicle, considering they will still pay similar fueling costs. Its limited infrastructure won't help, either.
Today, investors can buy the top-rated Tesla Motors Model S at a nearly equivalent starting price to that of the Toyota FCV (if the pricing in Japan is roughly in line with that in the U.S.). With its attractive design, splendid performance, and impressive driving distance, it would be hard for me take Toyota's new ride over the Model S. Plus, drivers can charge at home or use Tesla's Supercharger network, which is expected to cover 98% of the U.S. population by the end of 2015.
Although Toyota is leading the way on the hydrogen fuel cell charge, other companies are working on it, too. General Motors, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and Ford, among several others, have projects in development as well. Hopefully this will help lower the price for this type of vehicle in the future.
Toyota explains that this vehicle type isn't intended to dominate by decade's end. Instead, management refers to it as the car to power the next 100 years. With a more affordable vehicle, improved infrastructure, and hopefully lower fueling costs down the road, perhaps the company is right about the future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. But it's still got a long road ahead.
Bret Kenwell owns shares of Ford. The Motley Fool recommends Ford, General Motors, 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.