Will Hydrogen Cars Make Driving Cheaper?

Refueling a Hydrogen Car
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Getty Images/© Santiago Urquijo

A 2017 KPMG survey of senior automotive executives found that 62% of them believe that battery-powered cars are not the answer for the future of sustainable driving. On the other hand, 78% said hydrogen cars will be the "golden bullet of electric mobility," due to the fact that their tanks can be refueled in about as long as it takes to fill your car with gas, rather than the long amounts of time that battery-powered vehicles often need.

In a 2018 report, the European Climate Foundation predicted that fuel-cell cars will comprise 26% of the car market by 2050 – which may seem like a long way off, but the usage of fuel-cell vehicles will slowly increase as the technology becomes more efficient and the vehicles become cheaper.

It is clear that hydrogen is the answer for the future, and will make driving more sustainable and affordable for everyone. A bigger question, if you are thinking about becoming an early adapter is, will hydrogen make driving a car cheaper right now?

How Hydrogen Cars Work

Hydrogen cars employ the power of fuel cells that run on hydrogen gas and the air we breathe. The fuel cells combine pressurized hydrogen gas with oxygen to power the car, and the only byproduct is water – the same water we need and drink every day. Since hydrogen is by far the most abundant element in the universe, the fuel source is almost guaranteed to never run out. To “make” it, you simply run water (H20, two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen) through an electrolyzer.

The issue is, making that hydrogen uses up a lot of energy in and of itself. It then has to be compressed from a gas into a liquid, and it is about four times less energy dense than gasoline, meaning cars need four times as much of it to go the same distance as 1/4 that amount of gas. Hydrogen is also prone to leaking out of the containers that it’s held in, and since hydrogen gas is extremely flammable, this is not a great situation to have.

Hydrogen engines are also very fickle: neither steam nor ice will power a hydrogen vehicle, so the temperature must be kept in that narrow and very low range in which hydrogen is a liquid.

Is hydrogen power better than gas/electric?

In terms of saving the environment, maybe, but not now. It still takes a ton of energy to produce and transport hydrogen, so often, it actually makes more sense to buy a hybrid or electric vehicle if you are looking to go easy on the planet (and your wallet).

“Better” is, of course, a relative term. If you want to be an early investor in the sustainable technology of the future, then hydrogen is the clear way to go. But for now, it remains an expensive and sometimes inefficient option for most people.

Buying a Hydrogen Car

There are not a lot of hydrogen refueling stations outside of some of the largest cities across the globe, and so it will likely be difficult for you to find refueling stations consistently. In addition, hydrogen-powered vehicles are still expensive, keeping them outside of the reasonable reach of most people. For example, the starting price of a 2021 Toyota Mirai is $49,500.

Good Hydrogen Cars On The Market

If you really want to buy a hydrogen vehicle right now, you may need to live in California, if you live in the U.S. If you do and are up for the challenge, there are a couple of solid options on the market.

The 2021 Toyota Mirai fuel cell electric vehicle is beautiful and comes with six years or $15,000 worth of free fuel, whichever comes first. It can drive approximately 400 miles without needing to refuel and takes only five minutes to do so once you need to. You can purchase it for a base price of $49,500. However, it is only available in California and Oahu, Hawaii.

The 2021 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell can be leased for $379 per month for three years, but only to California residents. It "works well" as a family car, according to Car and Driver Magazine.