Battery-electric versus hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: Which will power the future?

Battery-electric versus hydrogen fuel cell vehicles: Which will power the future?


The term ‘electric vehicle’ can be used to describe a number of innovative technologies. Used on Zap-Map, it currently refers to battery-electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. However, the term can also include hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. While both types of vehicle are being powered by electricity at the wheel, the difference lies in the way the electricity is generated and stored on-board the vehicle.

We thought it would be interesting to review the ongoing debate within the electric transport sector about which technology is better and which one to back. As is often the case with competing cutting edge technologies, the answer to this is dependent completely on whom you ask.

Fuel cells or ‘fool’ cells?

Leading the way in the battery electric corner is Elon Musk, perhaps the most well known and vocal member of the electric vehicle (EV) community. He is also the CEO and founder of Tesla, the ground-breaking car company which is already a major e-car manufacturer.

His company, Tesla Motors is leading the way in EV battery advancements. It currently has a two car roster (the Model S and Roadster), both of which are 100% battery electric vehicles. They are soon to be joined by the Model X and Model 3. All of which boast an electric range in excess 200 miles.

Musk’s argument is simple and is based on the efficiency of the fuel-chain from source to end use (in this case to power a car). He believes, and has gone on the record to say as much, that fuel cell technology and hydrogen is a “silly” and “dumb” way to power an EV.

Click on the following youtube clip to find out why.

In the video, Musk explains how fuel cell technology is a collection “extremely inefficient” processes and even in a best case scenario a FCV loses out to the current battery-electric vehicle. The following also highlights the complexity involved powering a a FCV and the inefficiencies to which Musk alludes.


The Hydrogen camp

However, there are many companies and technologists who would disagree with Musk, Toyota being the main proponent of fuel cell vehicles (FCVs). The company has invested heavily in fuel cell technology and recently unveiled the hydrogen powered Mirai, which they strongly believe, in spite of Elon Musk’s views, is the future.

The key arguments in favour of hydrogen FCVs are that range is much less of a problem for these type of EVs as compared to battery EVs where, for most models, range is limited to around 100 miles. The other supporting issues are that hydrogen is highly abundant and can be made from almost any energy source, and it can also be stored more easily than electricity, in large quantities at least.

Toyota’s argument is largely centred on the abundance of hydrogen sources that surround us. In fact, in response to a comment from Musk himself in which he branded hydrogen powered vehicles as “so bullsh*t”, Toyota produced a commercial where they ran the Mirai on just that, bullsh*t!

There is no doubt that the Toyota Mirai is an impressive piece of kit. It is now the world’s longest-range zero-emission car (estimated to be able to travel 312 miles on one tank of hydrogen).

While hydrogen can be produced via electrolysis, which has already been exposed as inefficient, most of the worlds supplies are generated using steam reformation of methane (natural gas). Indeed, around 2% of the world’s energy supply is already converted to hydrogen for the chemical industry.

If used on a large scale in the future, hydrogen’s energy storage properties mean that it could be used to store and harness and therefore utilise renewable energy sources a lot more easily.

Battery EV versus FCV: Is the jury in our out?

One thing these technologies have in common is that both battery-electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles provide zero-tailpipe emission motoring; so from an air quality perspective at least they are equally attractive.

On the plus side (no pun intended) for battery-electric vehicles is the existing electricity infrastructure (the ‘grid’) which his already capable of charging EVs throughout most developed countries. As we show on Zap-Map, there are already over 8,000 public charging points available to EV and PHEV drivers across the UK.

FCVs on the other hand, would need to whole new hydrogen infrastructure to be built; not a trivial or cheap enterprise. In the UK, for example, there are just 29 hydrogen refuelling stations (most of which are closed to the public). While this could be expanded, it would take some time to develop.

There is also the matter of the number of models: while there are around 30 battery and plug-in hybrid models in the UK, there are only two production FCV models available, with the expertise to support them virtually non-existing to date. FCVs also cost more at present, another negative for the proponents of hydrogen transport.

However, hydrogen FCVs do technically address the current range limitations of battery EVs which may never (Tesla cars excluded) get over the 150 mile real-range barrier considered sufficient for mass market adoption. Hydrogen gas can be distributed in trucks to fuel station (as we do with petrol and diesel now) so perhaps infrastructure is not such a great barrier.

If nothing else, battery electric vehicles have set the bar for zero-emission vehicles that fuel cell vehicles have to beat. Given time, FCVs may become a more commercial option as production cost fall, as is happening with battery costs. While we think the jury is still out on battery versus fuel cell, the jury has already cast its votes in support of the zero-emission vehicle.

As active supporters of the EV revolution we think we have a great contest. Great because we win either way. In battery EVs we already have a viable zero-emission technology that works, is affordable and has caught the industry’s and public’s imagination. If FCVs deliver this, it will only add to the zero-emission options when powering future vehicles.