Electric Cars vs Fuel Cell Cars: One Clear Loser

It may not seem like cars are going through their most radical change since Henry Ford’s assembly line, but they are. Electric vehicles (EVs) are a small but growing fraction of vehicle sales in the U.S., and this is with limited public knowledge, short range among affordable EVs, relatively few charging stations, and high price tags.

Early electric car

You may be amazed to learn, as I was, that electric cars were widely popular from the dawn of the automobile until the electric starter replaced the hand crank and made gas-powered cars less of a pain in the neck.

But the 2016 model year brings at least two strides forward: the Chevy Volt has improved gas mileage, lowered price, and increased electric range from 38 to 53 miles, while the 2016 Leaf’s range expands from 84 to 107 miles. With used EVs becoming available plus the likelihood of more battery innovations and dropping battery costs, EV’s are crossing the line to becoming a cheaper than gas cars, on top of their many other advantages, like powerful acceleration, quietness, and greatly reduced maintenance costs.

By the way, if you’re concerned that EVs might not be a good choice for the climate in some parts of the country, you’ve probably heard the comparison of oil to coal-generated electricity. There’s a fundamental error in this, because it’s comparing “tailpipe” emissions for the gas car to “lifecycle” emissions for the EV. Lifecycle emissions are the total climate impact of obtaining, processing, and using something. When we calculate lifecycle emissions for gas cars and compare apples to apples, gas cars are a clear and universal loser: see “Wait, Gas-Powered Cars Do WHAT?!?“.

But EVs aren’t the only climate-friendly car revolution in progress: fuel cell cars (FCVs), which run electric motors by producing electricity from combining hydrogen from the fuel tank with oxygen in the air to produce water, are also becoming progressively more efficient and less expensive. Having electric engines, they have most of the advantages of EVs, too, and while in recent years they’ve been widely written off as being impractical, their technology has advanced to the point where they’re now a reality, including Toyota’s Mirai, currently being sold in Japan, as well as a number of other models, some of which are affordable and being sold in the U.S..

Toyota Mirai

Toyota Mirai – photo by Turbo-myu-z

“Affordable” is a relative term, of course. EVs and FCVs are mainly available new, and the only way they currently compete with ICE (internal combustion engine) cars in the U.S. is because of government subsidies.

However, unlike ICE cars, EVs and FCVs are experiencing an ongoing burst of innovation in batteries, fuel cells, and electric engines that shows no sign of slowing. With every improvement, these cars become a better value proposition compared to ICE cars, and when we calculate in the cost to the climate, they are arguably a much better value already.

All of this is without any increase of gas prices–and if there is one thing we know about gas prices, it’s that they never stay steady for long–and without a carbon tax. If carbon taxes become widespread, as for all our sakes I hope they will in the near future, suddenly EVs and FCVs will become much more economically attractive, which will fuel larger-scale manufacture and more innovation, which will make them cheaper in a virtuous cycle that could continue for many years.

So which will win, the EV or the FCV? To answer that question, we should start by realizing that these are just two varieties of the same thing: a car with an electric engine and a way to store electrical energy. EVs store that energy in batteries; fuel cells require electricity to generate hydrogen from water, and the hydrogen is then pumped into the car to return most of that electricity when it’s converted back.

Hydrogen filling station

Hydrogen filling station in Iceland – photo by Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

In the near term, it seems unlikely either will gain a decisive upper hand unless it experiences a sudden and outsize technological leap. Some car companies are putting their weight and huge amounts of funding behind EVs, while others are doing the same thing with fuel cells. Both technologies have widespread uses apart from automobiles, including local grid electricity storage, mass transit, and industry, and both are likely to benefit from outside advances.

In the long term, if one technology pulls well ahead of the other in terms of how well it stores energy compared to size, weight, and cost, that technology may eventually take over. If I had to bet on one, I’d bet on EVs, which have wider early adoption, are easier to understand, and can easily be charged at home. One of the great advantages of owning an EV is that you never have to go to a gas station, and even when you do fuel up away from home, the energy is often free, at least these days. That said, fuel cells take only minutes to refuel, compared to much longer battery charging times, and a big enough breakthrough in fuel cell efficiency could wipe EVs off the map.

Still, there is one clear loser in this game: ICE cars, our familiar gas guzzlers. The only real advantage of ICE cars is that they’re established. We’re familiar with them, there’s a huge supply and a wide variety of ICE cars, and gas stations are everywhere. True, they also fuel up faster than EVs, but they don’t have that advantage over FCVs, and EVs can be charged at home, overnight or during the work day. As electric ranges increase, the need to fuel up away from home will only apply for long trips, and when fast charging stations are more widely available, it won’t be difficult to charge your car while you stop for a break or meal every few hours.

So ICE cars are louder, perform less well, smell worse, are terrible for the environment, will become less convenient, and soon will be more expensive than both EVs and FCVs. Will the force of habit be enough to make us stick with them as this equation becomes more and more unbalanced? History suggests that it won’t: no matter how used to the horse and buggy we were, no matter how unusual microwaves seemed at first, or how much of a change it was to start streaming video rather than simply watching TV, we Americans–and most other people in the world–have proved we are always ready to change our habits if something strikingly better comes along. Now not one, but two things have.

Fluffy William and the Threat of Global Climate Change

Once there was an adorable little chipmunk named Fluffy William, who for whatever reason could understand English. It was just one of those things.


Fluffy William was so wee and cute that he charmed everyone he met, except for gardeners, from whose strawberry patches he had a habit of selecting a strawberry, eating just one bite, and then moving on–though in Fluffy William’s defense, his wee stomach was so small that one bite of strawberry filled him right up.

Fluffy William lived an unusually happy chimpmunk life, with cool leaves to rustle under in hot weather and a warm nest to bed down in when it turned cold, until he chanced to be sitting by an open window during a ninety-minute documentary on climate change. Climate change, it turned out, was weather and temperatures and reliable natural cycles all going haywire. Climate change was floods in the Spring and droughts in the Summer and hurricanes in the Fall and God only knows what kind of trouble in the winter. Climate change would make it harder for people to grow food, which would make for more desperate people, which would make for more disasters and refugees and wars. It rapidly became clear to Fluffy William, understanding English as he did, that somebody needed to do something about this climate change problem, and quick.

So Fluffy William ventured deep into the woods until he came to the burrow of Elder Stern Wanda, the wisest and most respected chipmunk anywhere thereabouts. There, breathlessly, he explained about climate change.

“We have to do something about this terrible problem, Elder Stern Wanda!” cried Fluffy William. “But what can I do? I’m just one little chipmunk.”

“You can’t do anything,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Anything you might try to do would be totally useless. It’s the humans who have to do something about it, and everybody knows you can’t make a human do something they haven’t chosen to do on their own without a gun or a fistful of money.” Elder Stern Wanda picked up an old, chewed-up acorn and gnawed at it gingerly with her one remaining front tooth. The effort seemed to exhaust her after a few gnaws, and she put it back down. Age has its compensations, but it’s still a pain in the neck.

“So humans have to each decide to change their habits on their own?” said Fluffy William.

“Don’t hold your breath for it,” said Elder Stern Wanda. “Now scamper along home.”

So Fluffy William scampered along home and did nothing. That next spring there was a terrible flood, and in the summer there was a terrible drought. Regrettably, Fluffy William could not compete with the other chipmunks for the scarce food available, as he was so wee and cute, so he died of starvation.

He never did find out whether the humans did anything about climate change.

Photo by Gilles Gonthier