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Hydrogen fuel cells or batteries: Is Tesla or Toyota cashing in on the future?

For anyone who isn't a fan of imported foreign oil and greenhouse gas, Toyota's Hydrogen fuel cells and Tesla's battery-powered vehicles represent a safe, clean and alluring step into the future. While the cars aren't mainstream or as affordable as gas-powered vehicles yet, industry research may show this won't last for long. Electric vehicles - whether powered by hydrogen or batteries - will likely occupy a large space on the roads of the future.

However, as the crux of the issue is making the most efficient future vehicle, there's one important question: Which powertrain is the most effective option? 

"Water is the only thing that comes from the Toyota Mirai's tailpipe."

The case for hydrogen fuel cells
To the outside observer, hydrogen fuel cells seem like the sexy new-age alternative. The basic steps of the HFC process involves combining liquid hydrogen with oxygen from the air to produce an electric current and water. That's right - water is the main byproduct of the process, and that's all that comes out of the Toyota Mirai's tailpipe, according to The Motley Fool. 

More than that, the vehicle also rids the car of a bulky battery. Elon Musk spoke at the Automotive News World Congress in Detroit in January about how misperceptions in battery charging - namely about how long it takes - likely hurt Tesla sales in China already. Alternatively, Toyota is promising free hydrogen refueling to early adopters of the new HFC vehicle for three years. That may not help drivers find refueling stations with ease, but it's still a tantalizing prospect.

All of these prospects are Toyota's main selling points for the Mirai, or any other future HFC vehicle, but critics have raised questions about gathering huge quantities of liquid hydrogen. One of those critics was Musk himself.

Hydrogen fuel cells are 'extremely silly'
While speaking at the Automotive News World Congress, Musk outlined a few reasons why HFC vehicles aren't a viable concept for a large fleet of cars. Noting that there are some rebuttals online, the CEO of Tesla outlined a few key details.

  • Electrolysis, the process used to extract hydrogen from water, is an extremely inefficient process - more inefficient than solar powering a battery.
  • Hydrogen molecules are pernicious, hard to store and extremely flammable, making leaks very dangerous.
  • Even the most efficient HFCs aren't as efficient as batteries - which is also reflected in the its 60 mpg estimated efficiency, according to the Motley Fool. That's one-third less efficient than a Prius plug-in, which achieves 95 MPGe.
The Toyota Mirai is one-third less efficient than a Prius plug-in.The Prius is already more efficient than the Toyota Mirai from well to wheel.

Musk isn't the only person who has raised questions about HFCs either. Think Progress writer and author of "The Hype About Hydrogen: Fact and Fiction in the Race to Save the Climate," Joe Romm, wrote a scathing article about the inefficiency of HFCs. Boiling down Romm's main points, the problem is not that HFC vehicles pollute, but that obtaining liquid hydrogen is an inefficient process that pollutes. Calculating for efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions going from well to wheel, HFC vehicles are actually a step back from even some gas-powered vehicles.

The case for batteries 
So HFC vehicles might be less efficient than previously thought. That doesn't mean batteries are the hands-down choice. The main problems with the new technology is that the batteries take too long to charge, making driving less convenient for some commuters, and the models are currently too expensive for widespread adoption.

"EVs take too long to charge and are too expensive for consumers."

Unlike HFC vehicles, batteries aren't at the mercy of any particular energy source. Instead, the vehicles are charged on the grid, so they are as green as whatever powerplant supplies a region's electricity. For a location that thrives off of hydropower, the environmental benefits can be significant. For regions that use coal power plants, the gains are not that noteworthy. The takeaway is that the potential is there.

What about the charging times, though? As efficient and green as the cars are, they won't gain traction amongst buyers who drive far frequently if "refueling" takes a matter of hours. There are two solutions to this. Companies like NRG eVgo have begun installing EV stations that can charge a car for 150 miles in one hour. For drivers who need an even quicker turnaround, Tesla has shown the effectiveness of battery swapping stations, which can reportedly unload and reinstall a fresh battery into a vehicle quicker than it takes to fill a gas tank. Installing the necessary swapping station infrastructure on a large scale will likely take time, but the process holds a lot of potential.

Still, Teslas aren't inexpensive enough for the average buyer. But that's often the case with new technologies. Car and Driver reported that costs will likely decrease for Tesla models if Musk completes a proposed battery factory in the Nevada desert. What's more, there could be even greater cost savings in store if the electric auto company can streamline its supply chain. Still, these developments are years away, but that's not long in terms of changing the dominant fuel source on the road.

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