In the race of fuel cell cars (which run on hydrogen only) vs. hybrids (which run on a combustion engine assisted by battery power), some clear trends start to become obvious with a bit of poking around. First off, hydrogen vehicles won’t become a reality until consumers can refuel the cars from hydrogen stations. And since hydrogen stations don’t exist yet, hydrogen vehicles are presently a non-starter.
But at some point, fuel cell technology will actually be available in consumer autos and hydrogen stations will reach a tipping point — a point of critical mass. At that point, consumers will flock to hydrogen vehicles on a grand scale, causing their production costs to plummet, further causing the vehicles to be that much more affordable to the rest of the consumer market.
I agree with GM’s Larry Burns on this: fuel cell vehicles (FCV) will make hybrids obsolete. But not for a long while yet. Hybrids have the advantage of working off of existing infrastructure. In other words, you can refuel them at the corner gas station.
Now here’s an interesting thought: as right as GM is about the future of fuel cell vehicles, chances are that Japanese auto makers will do a far better job of actually making them. I’m sure I’ll take some flak for stating the obvious, but American-made cars just aren’t up to par with Japanese cars.
In my experience, Ford just doesn’t engineer vehicles as well as Toyota. Japan beats them hands down with vehicles that have lower maintenance costs and higher resale value. Toyotas just work year after year, mile after mile, and they have far more refined user interface design as well. (By “user interface” I mean all the things you interface with in the vehicle: the seats, mirrors, steering wheel and other controls.)
There’s little doubt in my mind that when fuel cell vehicles become mainstream, most people are going to be driving Japanese-designed FCVs. Besides, who’s selling hybrid vehicles right now? It’s Toyota.
There’s one more reason to support this notion: Japan is a country that would love to be rid of dependence on foreign oil. Why? Because they have almost no oil themselves, and they have to import nearly every drop. So there’s a huge political and even national security interest on the part of the Japanese to switch to fuel cell vehicles.
The U.S., on the other hand, seems steeped in the oil economy. Its political leaders are tied to large oil companies. This does not create a political environment in which new federal laws or regulations would encourage people to move away from oil. In fact, it accomplishes just the opposite.
For this reason, expect the U.S. to lag behind other advanced nations in shifting to the hydrogen economy.
Now here’s an interesting thought: what do you get when you combined fuel cell vehicles with new solar cell technology that allows us to capture power from the sun at 1/20th the current cost? Consider: solar cells are innate hydrogen factories. Stick the two wires from any solar cell into a bucket of water, and you get two gases bubbling up: hydrogen and oxygen. Both are explosive gases, and the hydrogen is of course the same hydrogen that can power fuel cell vehicles.
In other words, this is a fascinating roadmap into the future of our transportation economy. Oil doesn’t need to even be in the picture. Neither does natural gas, for that matter. This can all be accomplished by harnessing energy from the sun.