What will we be driving in the future? Electric vs. hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

Science Friday
The 2016 Toyota Mirai sedan. Photo by Toyota

The 2016 Toyota Mirai sedan. 


“It drives like a regular car, operates like a regular car. You can refuel in three to five minutes and, you know, do 350 miles on a trip,” says Craig Scott, Toyota’s national manager for advanced technologies in the US. 

Scott is overseeing the US release of the Mirai, Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell car.  

“We're really excited,” Scott says. “This will be the first time for US consumers to get a chance to actually own a real live fuel cell electric vehicle.”

The Mirai is a new kind of hybrid. It’s powered by a 1.6 kilowatt battery and a fuel cell that runs on high pressure hydrogen. In order to refuel, Mirai car owners will be reliant on a network of hydrogen refueling stations. 

At the moment, Toyota is only planning to sell some 3000 Mirai vehicles over the next three years. In their first year they expect to sell just 700. 

Levi Tillemann, a fellow at the New American Foundation and author of The Great Race: The Global Quest for the Car of the Future, says the lack of hydrogen refueling stations will be a big barrier for people trying to decide whethe to get a hydrogen fuel cell car.  

“You do need a huge amount of infrastructure, and it's centralized infrastructure,” Tillemann says, “There's not very much of it out there today. I mean there are 12 public hydrogen refueling stations in the entire country, with with about 10 of those in California.” 

Tillemann says the launch is more of a giant research and development initiative for Toyota.

“It's important to remember in the context of fuel cell vehicles that what Toyota is doing here is really kind of deployed [Research] and [Development],” Tillemann says. “They're willing to take these cutting edge technologies and put them in the hands of consumers at a very early stage so they can gather knowledge for the long run as to how these vehicles are going to perform.” 

In addition to infrastructure problems, fuel cell vehicles face another big hurdle. In the race to power cars with zero emission technology, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles still rely on hydrogen, a product that comes from methane.

“Hydrogen fuel cells are potentially a great technology for long distance zero emission travel,” Tillemann says. “But the problem is that right now they don't produce much less CO2 than your standard hybrid electric vehicle because of the fact that that hydrogen comes from methane. And when you produce the hydrogen from methane, you release a lot of CO2 and it requires a lot of energy. So the hope is that somebody in the future will be able to come up with a way to produce zero carbon hydrogen. And if we're able to do that, then hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are a great idea. But until then it's hard to find their place in a very low or a zero carbon future.”

As Scott points out, however, electric cars face the same hurdle

“Exactly the same is true for EVs [electric vehicles], right? We also have to find a way to develop more carbon free electricity,” Scott says. “Fuel cells and EVs are about on par with each other from an emissions point of view, which is to say they're roughly 50 percent cleaner than the standard gasoline vehicles. So, all things considered, again, you know, the goal is to make sure that we're all moving towards zero emission technology.”

There are plenty of players competing in the market to develop cleaner cars. Toyota has been selling their Prius for more than 15 years, and Tesla produces electric cars. There are also rumors that Apple is developing a new vehicle under its so-called "Titan" project. 

“There are a lot of media reports out there that have talked about what the shape of the Apple car might be. Some people have said that it's going to be a mobile office. Some people have said it's going to look like a minivan. Some people have quoted high level Apple execs as saying Apple is going to give Tesla a run for its money. So we don't really know what the project Titan looks like,” Scott says. “But what we do know is that there is a lot of buzz around it in the media, and that Apple has raised their R&D budget for the coming years substantially. And so I think that indicates that it seems like they might be making significant investments.” 

When it comes to investing in the future or electric versus hybrid vehicles, however, Tillemann says he thinks electric vehicles have the upper hand. 

“Most of the good research that I've seen says that they're dramatically more efficient from the standpoint of carbon emissions than either a hybrid or a potential hydrogen vehicle. In my experience, the reports that I've seen that do a thorough analysis of the carbon footprints of these vehicles show that electric vehicles by far have the potential to be the cleanest of all cars.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Science Friday with Ira Flatow

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