With all of the momentum in the electric vehicle market, the hydrogen vehicles that Toyota (NYSE:TM), Honda, and Hyundai are launching face an uphill battle. Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) has been the poster child of the EV revolution, but there's growing momentum across the industry. General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevy Volt was actually the best-selling EV in the U.S. last year and BMW reportedly sold out of its new i3 model before it could hit showrooms.
Unless hydrogen vehicles can overcome the strength of the EV movement, they risk being stranded by consumers before they ever hit the road.
Lacking infrastructure to compete
The battle between hydrogen fuel and electric vehicles can be seen as something like a VHS vs. Betamax standards battle. In this case, the installed base of fueling stations is analogous to the installed base of video players, which is really what decided the winner of the VHS vs. Betamax battle.
Without a network of stations to fuel vehicles, cost, range, and efficiency are moot points and that's why hydrogen's utterly lacking infrastructure is troubling. Below is a map of the hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., and as you can see, outside of a small network in the Los Angeles area, there's not a critical mass of stations to make hydrogen an attractive automotive fuel source.
Not only is hydrogen not readily available, but building infrastructure would cost billions of dollars. Natural gas would either have to be converted into hydrogen at central plants and trucked to fueling stations, or the stations themselves would have to install a hydrogen generator to create hydrogen on-site.
This compares to the relative ease of installing an electric car charger. For a few thousand dollars any business or home can install a charger with power that exists on-site. According to PlugShare.com, where I live in Minneapolis (not exactly an EV hotbed) there are two dozen public chargers within a few miles of downtown -- and there are tens of thousands across the country.
The battle between EVs and hydrogen fuel infrastructure will leave hydrogen cars stranded if they get too far away from home.
Manufacturing scale already building in EVs
Scale in infrastructure is important for future fuels, but so is manufacturing scale. Tesla Motors' Gigafactory is a testament to that, and the company's Model 3 is projected to cost around $35,000 as a result of the cost reductions scale brings.
As BMW, Volkswagen, GM, and other automakers launch more electric vehicles, the cost curve will continue to decline.
2015 hydrogen vehicles are expected to cost somewhere between $50,000 and $100,000, with detailed specifications and pricing available closer to launch. That's on par with an electric vehicle, but it's unknown if hydrogen fuel cells can lower costs at the same rate as lithium-ion batteries, which are commonly used in everything from cellphones to laptops.
Another thing to consider is that hydrogen vehicles have all of the components of an electric vehicle and then some. They actually turn hydrogen into electricity, store that power in a battery, and then power electric motors for power to the drive train. Unless the fuel cell and battery included in each hydrogen vehicle is less costly than the battery in an EV, they will fundamentally cost more.
Time is ticking on the hydrogen car
Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai say they're still committed to hydrogen as a fuel of the future, but they're already seeing the success EVs are having in the market. Tesla Motors is selling the Model S as fast as it can make them and BMW is selling out of both the i3 and hybrid i8 electric vehicles. Add in General Motors, with its best-selling Chevy Volt, along with Nissan and others, and the EV standard appears to be winning.
I wouldn't want to be betting on hydrogen vehicles at the moment, and given the lack of infrastructure in the U.S., it looks like they may be stranded before they even hit the roads.
Travis Hoium has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends BMW, Ford, General Motors, 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.