Why hydrogen cars will be Tesla's biggest threat

  • Tesla owns over half of the zero-emissions market in America, but that only accounts for two percent of the entire US car market.
  • The main reasons consumers don't switch to battery-electric vehicles are due to long recharging time, range anxiety, and cost.
  • Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles can refuel in 5 minutes and give consumers a longer range. If infrastructure continues to grow and fuel-cell vehicles scale, Tesla could have a new host of competitors in the zero-emission space.
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The following is a transcript of the video.

Narrator: If you ask anyone what the future of cars looks like, they'll probably tell you it's electric and that Tesla is at the forefront of the movement. But what if I told you that there's another option that could be just as good or even better than battery-electric vehicles? What if you could power cars with the most abundant resource in the universe with water as the only byproduct? And they're more likely to disrupt the auto industry than battery-powered cars, like Teslas. Hydrogen fuel cells have been a technology of great promise as well as great skepticism. Elon Musk himself often mocks hydrogen fuel cell technology, going so far as to call them "fool cells" and "mind-bogglingly stupid." But major automakers still see promise.

First, let's define the terms. Battery electric vehicles, or BEVs, are the electric vehicles that most of us are familiar with today, like Teslas. They use a battery to store electricity and power the electric motor. A hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle, or FCEV, like Toyota's Mirai, combines hydrogen with oxygen to produce electricity, which then powers the electric motor that drives the car. Now, when it comes to why people don't buy battery-electric vehicles like Teslas, there are three main reasons: They take too long to recharge, they have a limited range before they need to be recharged, and they cost a lot more than your comparable gas-powered car. So, how do hydrogen cars stack up in these areas?Advertisement

When it comes to recharging, hydrogen cars have battery-electrics beat. At a supercharging station, a Tesla can charge anywhere from 30% to 50% in 15 minutes, but you'll be at the charging station for over an hour for a full charge. Fuel-cell vehicles don't require charging at all. The hydrogen tank is refilled at a hydrogen station in less than five minutes, just like your typical gas station today. That's because FCEVs don't store electricity like a battery; they create it on demand to power the motor. When it comes to range, hydrogen-powered cars seem to come out on top again. Between the three fuel-cell vehicles on the road today, they have a range of 312, 360, and 380 miles. Most electric vehicles have a range under 250 miles. While some Tesla models offer a range of more than 300 miles, they often cost more than the average car buyer can afford.

Range and refueling times are so important that 78% of automotive executives believe fuel-cell vehicles will be the breakthrough for electric mobility. But that's not to say fuel-cell vehicles don't have challenges of their own. FCEVs need more competitive pricing. The suggested retail price for the fuel-cell vehicles available today is around $60,000, which is about $20,000 more than an entry-level BEV. That's because production size of these vehicles is incredibly low. With only a few thousand or few hundred being made every year, it's nearly impossible for prices to be competitive. But that could soon be changing. Automakers are looking to increase the production of their FCEVs. Toyota, in particular, has increased its production capabilities tenfold to eventually bring down the cost of its Mirai. The real challenge for hydrogen fuel cells is the lack of infrastructure. In the US, the majority of hydrogen stations are in California, with just over 40 available to fuel-cell owners. For FCEVs to become the breakthrough that automotive executives believe in, a vast network for hydrogen stations is vital. And automakers are slowly working to make it happen.

Jackie Birdsall: We do get to work together with the other automakers, as well as with, you know, here in California, the state of California and the industrial gas suppliers, or whomever the energy provider is, to be able to site hydrogen stations where it makes the most sense for all of the automakers' vehicles. And so that's to try to make sure that any investment that we make is best leveraged by all of the consumers from all of the automakers that currently offer fuel-cell vehicles.
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Narrator: If and when fuel-cell vehicles scale, Tesla will have a tough challenge on their hands. They'll have to increase range while simultaneously decreasing recharging time and price. But Teslas, and any battery-electric vehicles, are limited because of the law of diminishing returns. Increasing the range requires a larger battery. A larger battery will add more weight to the car. After a certain point, the added weight no longer yields additional range. With FCEVs, it's just a numbers game. More hydrogen stations equal more cars, and more cars equal more affordable fuel-cell vehicles. Tesla has a lock on the zero-emissions market in America, controlling a whopping 60% of the EV market. But that's still only 2% of the entire US car market. And those numbers decrease when we talk about the global car market. The only thing really holding FCEVs back is infrastructure, and as hydrogen stations become more abundant, Tesla could lose the majority of the zero-emissions market. For a technology that's "mind-bogglingly stupid," it has serious potential to become a real competition for the very same customers that Tesla's aiming for. So, Elon might want to take notice.

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