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Elon Musk’s “Hydrogen is BS” – Fuel Cell Vehicle Myth Ten

Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and Battery Electric Vehicles, BETA and VHS?
Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles and Battery Electric Vehicles, BETA and VHS?

Elon Musk has a very bad opinion on hydrogen use in cars. He stated it in one of our interviews with him and with other oca

Up until now, we’ve been covering a number of myths regarding hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and their viability as safe and environmentally-responsible transportation, and I suppose the last is to address Elon Musk’s famous assertion, that “hydrogen is so bs.”

Considering that Tesla Motors, of which Elon Musk is CEO, is the single most-successful automaker to appear in the last half-century, one specializing in battery electric vehicles at that, one may tend to agree with his thinking on the subject. After all, battery electric vehicles are more efficient and, at least slightly, less prone to being powered by fossil fuels. Might this be a little hero worship? Taking a look at Mr. Musk’s investment in solar power and battery electric vehicles, perhaps just a grain of salt is needed before the whole writing-off of fuel cell technology, but why?

Elon Musk himself mentioned regarding his own electric vehicles and the naysayers, those who said “electric cars are never going to happen, we should just be resigned to burning hydrocarbons until they run out.” If Elon Musk were in the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle business, I’m sure he’d be talking about battery electric vehicle naysayers. In the video, he goes on to make statements regarding hydrogen safety, efficiency, and laying out hydrogen fuel cell vehicle refueling infrastructure, all of which we’ve been covering in this myth-busting series.

As the technology improves, both for battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, I honestly don’t believe that one or the other is an obvious win. It won’t be like the way that the compact disc took over for the cassette tape, but more like the way that VHS won out over BETA. Even though BETA was ahead in the game as well as offered better quality, VHS won out for being slightly cheaper and more time per cassette. Battery electric vehicles may have come first, yet that doesn’t automatically guarantee success in the world market place.

Tesla Motors may be worth nearly $30 billion today, but a bigger company, Toyota Motor Company, worth nearly $190 billion, has staked its future out on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. My guess is that both technologies will exist alongside one another for a long time to come, at least until fossil fuels run out and we have no choice but a battery electric vehicle or hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, or whatever else comes in the next fifty years.

Editor’s note: Elon Musk has been the right man at the right time with Tesla. Time will tell whether he was right or not, however, his formula works right now and without Tesla we wouldn’t have had neither the Chevy Volt, nor the Nissan Leaf, let alone supercharging from one side of the U.S. to the other (with Europe following). With hydrogen, on the other hand, in our times, people would’ve never adopted the technology because of the fuel cells’ high price and the limited availability of charging stations nowadays. Tesla made a name for themselves with off-the-shelf batteries, that are much, much easier to produce and use than fuel cells, just because everyone has them in their laptops and gadgets, and not fuel cells. In a perfect world, yes – hydrogen would be the ultimate fuel, but until someone like Toyota tries to make it viable, batteries are the gold standard. And right now I can’t imagine evolution without Tesla’s batteries.

Images © Olathe Toyota Parts Center

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  1. On reflection battery WILL be cheapest & when they develop the zinc air battery – THAT will be the cheapest by a long shot!

  2. When I think of the cars of the future, they’re exciting & efficient! No starter draining the battery at start-up & with high efficiency LED headlights emerging now, that’s more power saved. And they’re quick. Golf buggies they definitely are NOT! An earlier reflection made a clear point: Once we created light through heat & with the reciprocating engine there is a lot of heat to stay moving. With an electric motor there’s mostly motion without all that heat wasting energy & when the car is stopped so is the electric motor. It doesn’t idle. It’s not necessary. More energy saved! What cars? What a future? Make it happen!

  3. Regarding LoneWolffe’s comment on an issue of economics, going to the cheapest fuel,is a very short term view that can return to bite. Example being we have an old power station here called Hazelwood that supplies power for Melbourne. The coal it uses, sourced from Hazelwood, is so poor quality, it isn’t sold to overseas buyers or anyone else but the power station. So this power station gets this crap coal cheap. It’s CO2 & other emissions are high, its efficiency is poor, but STILL it’s CHEAP! That’s the penny pinching mentality that has to be overcome! It’s like convincing some smokers that their addiction will one day bury them!

    • Luckily, in the fuel cheapness category, battery electric vehicles have both gasoline and hydrogen beat by a long shot. Only the prius on our current cheap gas comes close.

  4. To say Musk is right is also to say companies like Mercedes Benz, Honda, Toyota & Hyundai are wrong. Given that the race isn’t always to the swift or the fight to the strong, but THAT’S the way to bet, I know where I’d put my money! These companies did a far amount of research BEFORE entering the electric car arena! And these cars don’t have to use hydrogen produced by electricity from fossil fuel power stations. Besides PV solar arrays, there’s also solar thermal heat storage power stations [working right now] that supply base load overnight & for up to 7 rainy days because of the stored heat. There are Mercedes Benz B Class F Cells on German streets TODAY. They were first released in 2012. BP has had hydrogen service stations in California for a few years now. Jamie Lee Curtis has a Honda FCX Clarity that she’s had for some years now. That’s Honda’s fuel cell car & it can be supplied with a home hydrogen refueling station. I don’t know the Honda’s performance figures but the Benz B Class F Cell has a range of 380 kilometres before needing refueling, a top speed of 170 klms per hour & refuelling time is only minutes, just as now with petrol cars. I, as an individual, can buy hydrogen producing units the size of a bar fridge, TODAY & all you need is to plug it in & add water! Service stations wouldn’t have hydrogen trucked in but produce it on site! I think, Mr.Musk has belatedly realized that he’s backed the wrong horse!

    • So you’re choosing to take Toyota, Honda, and Hyundai’s side over Tasks, GM, Nissan, Volkswagen (new addition to the electric team), BMW, Ford (to a somewhat lesser extent), and all the luxury companies that recently announced BEVs to try to compete with Tesla?

      Make no mistake, there are many more players in the electric side of the debate. Just because Tesla is leading the charge does not mean that it’s Tesla vs the world.

  5. The automakers are producing fuel cell vehicles because the hydrogen will come from fossil fuels. Elon is content on charging Tesla’s batteries with the solar panels on supercharger stations and people’s roofs. Fuel cells are just a way for big oil to keep it’s toes in the game. Short term thinking. Thermodynamics and sustainable hydrogen production are just too at odds with each other at the moment to make it the environmentally green choice. Fuel cells will probably replace batteries one day, but only once we have solved the issue of cheap sustainable hydrogen production and storage. Elon is a realist. He makes shit happen with what’s available TODAY.

  6. radx28 In spite of renewable hydrogen being slightly less-efficient than other sources, there is also the emissions thing to consider. The best solution has to be solar hydrogen generation combined with a hydrogen fuel cell. Home solar panels and wind turbines, with comprehensive net-zero construction, a home hydrogen fuel cell and a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, could theoretically eliminate the carbon footprint of a single family, could it not?

    • A home with a BEV would require less electrical energy generation than one with a fuel cell so I’d think that would be a better solution than the hydrogen generation.

  7. It would be a shame if the genius that he is didn’t consider the idea that fuel cells could one day replace batteries.     I be thinking that ultimately, a Tesla will run on either.      And, it would appear that the best idea for hydrogen fueling is, perhaps, a ‘home device’ that converts natural gas to hydrogen for use in fuels cells (both to replace generators as a backup power source, and to fuel our self driving vehicles).

  8. wombah0070 It’s always going to be an issue of economics. fossil fuels are cheaper in the short run, thanks to government subsidies and big business. carbon pricing would take care of this, but the consumer isn’t gonna be happy about it. real pricing would be a wonderful thing, and people would come to the realization taht renewable energy and hydrogen fuel cells are probably the best way to go

  9. What is really funny is when people say there is a “Chicken and Egg” problem with Hydrogen Fuel Cells and their Re-Fueling?  Simply ask who built the first gasoline stations for our gasoline cars?  How did that work?

    From Car & Driver Will Hydrogen Be Cheaper Than Gasoline? Who Knows?http://www.caranddriver.com/features/pump-it-up-we-refuel-a-hydrogen-fuel-cell-vehicle-hydrogen-filling-stations-are-still-rare-page-3
    The pump we used quoted the price of hydrogen at $5 per kilogram. The actual cost for pump hydrogen in the future is difficult to estimate with any accuracy, though, since the volume and infrastructure aren’t yet mature. Balch cites studies that foresee the price of hydrogen leveling off between $2 and $4 per kilogram, and he points out that a kilogram of H2 typically provides more range than a gallon of gas. Once the price of hydrogen does come down, it should carry a cost per mile that’s similar to or better than that of gasoline. Better yet, once established, the price is not expected to fluctuate with the same volatility as that of gasoline.
    So although the process of pumping hydrogen into a fuel-cell vehicle is pretty simple (and getting simpler), the process of pumping hydrogen into our infrastructure could be one of the great challenges of our generation. At least we can look forward to keeping our hands clean.
    The ix35 Fuel Cell is equipped with a 100 kW electric motor, allowing it to reach a maximum speed of 160 km/h (99 mph). Two hydrogen storage tanks, with a total capacity of 5.64 kg, enable the vehicle to travel a total of 594 km (369 miles) on a single charge, and it can reliably start in temperatures as low as -20 degrees Celsius.
    GOOGLE:  Hyundai ix35 “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
    5.64 x $5 = $28.20 to travel 369 miles
    5.64 x $4 = $22.56 to travel 369 miles
    5.64 x $3 = $16.92 to travel 369 miles


    Human waste turned to power, money at Inland Empire plant
    http://www.dailybulletin.com/environment-and-nature/20140207/human-waste-turned-to-power-money-at-inland-empire-plantVideo below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.”New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”http://abclocal.go.com/kabc/story?section=news/local/orange_county&id=8310315″It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
    $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)

  10. LoneWolfe please go to Fuel Cell Myth Ten, read & review my last comment why I think hydrogen fuel Cell technology is the best future for cars & why it will appeal to the cost conscious motorist. I keenly awaiting reading your thoughts on the matter. To me it’s a no brainer!

  11. I completely agree with LoneWolffe’s comment about fossil fuel being easily available. It was also once cheap, which was it’s greatest appeal. That hasn’t been the case for a considerable time, with every indication that with increasing demand & diminishing supply prices will keep rising.
    Most motorists aren’t environmentalists but they ARE personal economists. Hydrogen in the UK is supposed to be the cheapest fuel now available, selling at half the cost of diesel. THIS is the “music” that appeals strongly to motorists everywhere. Just ask any cab driver. Drivers aren’t turned on by news of commuter type, battery powered, electric cars, with limited range & speed. Plus the idea of having to wait at home or a recharging outlet for an extended time for their commuter car to recharge isn’t going to cause a sales stampede.
    This is where hydrogen fuel cell technology shows its clear superiority. The fuel is cheap. We can never run out of water because after being used in the fuel cell, the hydrogen becomes water as it once was. [ Water broken down by electrolysis to produce this hydrogen fuel is returned to the environment as harmless, non-polluting water once it’s completed its use in the fuel cell.]
    Secondly, the motorist isn’t being asked to drive a “tinky toy”car in the name of climate change & saving the environment. Good hydrogen cars have equal speed performance to petrol cars currently on the street & a range of almost 400 kilometres before needing refuelling. Refuelling only takes a few minutes, just like petrol driven cars & is just as easy.
    This is what attracted me to this technology. The motorist DOESN’T have to compromise in the name of climate change by driving an inferior car. Different technology, no pollution, but same performance & we won’t have to worry about running out of fuel or the harm it’s doing to our environment. As a final example, if you parked a Mercedes Benz B Class F Cell beside a B Class with standard petrol engine, most people would swear they were identical. The only, external difference being, the petrol engine version has an exhaust pipe.

  12. I’m very disappointed my comment below didn’t prompt at least 1 response by now, as it perfectly highlights the inherent inefficiencies of the combustion engine & it can never be otherwise because heat as an energy source always involves more losses than other energy forms. That’s its nature!

  13. To make the internal combustion engine’s inefficiencies clear, let’s note how it works. It produces heat & noise in order to produce motion. It’s like the incandescent light bulb that way. What’s needed is almost a by-product. What’s required is motion, all else is symptomatic of wasting energy! That’s why hydrogen powered fuel cell electric cars are so efficient. Motion is most of what’s produced. No heat or noise here wasting precious energy! For me, this future can’t come soon enough. My next car WILL be a hydrogen powered fuel cell electric car! Nothing else will do!

    • You were disappointed that you had no comments here so I feel obliged to respond, even if I am a bit late.

      If you’re concerned about efficiency, then you’ll be happy to know that BEVs are 3-4x more efficient than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Maybe you should be thinking “nothing but a battery electric car will do!” Luckily, you’ve got generation 2 to look forward to with great additions such as the Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf 2.0, and the Tesla Model 3. Take a look at those. Tell me what you think. The 2016 Chevy Volt also deserves an honorable mention dispute not truly being part of the gen 2 full electric vehicle group.

  14. Hydrogen powered fuel cell electric cars ARE better than their battery powered cousins. The performance figures clearly bare this out! Sorry, Mr.Musk you backed the wrong horse!

  15. “without Tesla we wouldn’t have had neither the Chevy Volt, nor the Nissan Leaf”?  This sound pretty nutty.  It’s exactly reverse.   Nissan is true innovator of mass ev for mass market and without leaf, Tesla would not exist.

    • Why is it the reverse?

      I don’t know about the leaf, but Bob Lutz has officially stated that he wouldn’t have pushed the volt project through if it weren’t for the tesla roadster.

  16. Excuse me people what happened to my comment about the internal combustion engine becoming like the steam engine, only being found at museums & brought out on open days to thrill the children??? No censorship please!

  17. wombah0070 i really like your comments, but they would make more sense if you hit “reply” instead of just filling in the comment box. This one, for example, who are you responding to? 🙂

  18. What rock have you been hiding under? Hydrogen powered fuel cell electric cars are now in very serious production by equally serious car makers! The Mercedes B Class F Cell & the Honda FCX Clarity are both fuel cell cars with their own websites. Toyota, Hyundai & others will have models available by 2015. This has gone way beyond someone with a “project” in their garage!

  19. “…and I suppose the last is to address Elon Musk’s famous assertion, that “hydrogen is so bs.”
    Actually, he is asserting that fuel cells are BS. His assertion on H2 is dangerous and suited for upper stage rockets, not cars.
    the problem with this article is it does not address or rebut his
    comment on fuel cells. If the article had pointed to current
    developments in fuel cells and H2 that counter his statements, then it
    would be worthy of posting. At the moment it only counters with Musk
    having a dog/horse in this race.

    • Hmmmm…. In 2011, ABC reported that the fountain valley H2 station can support 150 cars/day… which is utterly false. They can support 25-30 cars per day (according to the California Fuel Cell partnership in 2014)…

      I have serious doubts on how the media is reporting on Hydrogen hype…. they simply aren’t fact checking anything. And the Hydrogen lobby is counting on that.

  20. The thing I really like about fuel cells in cars is that if we use our heads the complete process of fuel production to use can be ecofriendly & completely sustainable! If the power used in the electrolysis of water[this can be seawater therefore saving drinking water] to break it down into hydrogen & oxygen comes from PV solar arrays or solar thermal HEAT STORAGE power stations [There’s currently an 80 Megawatt one of these in the Mojave desert – they can store heat generated by sunlight for “up to 7 days” so supplying base load overnight & during rainy periods isn’t a problem!] the environmental impact is zero. Plus the process is completely cyclic! Water is broken down to make hydrogen which is later recombined with oxygen in the fuel cell to make electricity for the car & the only by-product is WATER vapour! What could be simpler & greener! This IS the doorway to sustainable motoring for us all! Ok, there’s an energy loss>>it takes more energy to break down the water than is given back when it reforms in the fuel cell, but seriously, who cares when we’re getting the energy free from the sun in the first place!

  21. With all these myths circulating, it looks very much like there are those with vested interests in trying to keep fuel cell cars out of the market place & they’re prepared to push as much BS, not very cleverly disguised as “fact”, to achieve their goal! The fuel cell was mostly developed by NASA during the space race when they found that the power to weight ratio of the lead acid battery wasn’t good enough for space travel. All that’s happened in more recent times is that some car makers have now adapted this technology so it can be used in our everyday cars. Some of the absolute super magnified bull that has been wheeled out as fact is beyond belief! One being that “hydrogen can’t be stored because it leaks from any & all containers known to man”<<<Oh, really?? Our friend who said this was obviously completely unaware that the French were, even before their revolution, making hydrogen in large quantities,storing it & sending people aloft in hydrogen balloons! Their method of making it was so simple:  They dribbled water down the inside of an iron pipe that was externally heated by hot coals.The oxygen then bonded with the iron forming rust, liberating the hydrogen which they then STORED for use.

  22. A cluster of hydrogen fueling stations will be built in Orange County over the next year, as the state lays out a welcome mat for what many believe will be the next big thing in zero-emission driving – fuel cells. 
    The state plans to spend $50 million for 28 new, public hydrogen fueling stations and a mobile re-fueler. Anaheim, Costa Mesa, Laguna Niguel, Lake Forest, Mission Viejo and Orange are among the California cities slated to get stations by the end of next year, state energy officials announced this month.
    As of Aug. 1, there were 10 operational hydrogen fueling stations in California, including outlets in Newport Beach, Fountain Valley and Irvine, according to the California Energy Commission. The state expects to have 51 public hydrogen stations in operation by 2017 and 100 by 2020.
    The new stations are coming on line as the auto industry is seeking to turn fuel cells into a mainstream method of powering cars and trucks, a shift some liken to the rise of hybrid vehicles in the early 2000s and, more recently, the rise of plug-in electric vehicles.
    “These … fueling stations set the stage for hydrogen fuel cell electric cars to become commonplace on our streets and provide a new generation of long-range, zero-emission vehicles for California consumers,” Air Resources Board chairwoman Mary D. Nichols said.
    The $50 million committed for the new hydrogen stations will come from fees for vehicle licenses, vessel registration and identification plates. To date, the state has committed about $110 million to make it easier for drivers to use fuel cell vehicles. 
    The state is backing fuel cell driving because hydrogen doesn’t produce greenhouse gases when used, and fuel cell vehicles have better range, performance and refueling time than battery-only vehicles.
    Linde starts production line for fuel cell car “filling stations”http://in.reuters.com/article/2014/07/14/linde-autos-hydrogen-idINL6N0PP4EK20140714(Reuters) – German industrial gases maker Linde opened what it said was the world’s first production line for hydrogen fuelling stations on Monday, in a bid to boost support networks for eco-friendly cars.

  23. Video (Someone took down the video but the article still there) below of what is happening in California at municipal wastewater treatment plants using fuel cell technology to produce 3 value streams of electricity, hydrogen and heat all from a human waste! This is pretty impressive in my opinion for hydro-refueling infrastructure.

    “New fuel cell sewage gas station in Orange County, CA may be world’s first”


    “It is here today and it is deployable today,” said Tom Mutchler of Air Products and Chemicals Inc., a sponsor and developer of the project.

    2.8MW fuel cell using biogas now operating; Largest PPA of its kind in North America


    Microsoft Backs Away From Grid

    Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle$499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)https://www.hyundaiusa.com/tucsonfuelcell/
    Toyota joins California Hydrogen Push in Station Funding – Bloomberghttp://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-05-01/california-awards-46-6-million-for-hydrogen-car-stations.html

  24. evlover LoneWolffe Yes, Tesla is far more efficient, but CO2 emissions can be calculated per mile just as with any other vehicle, ICE, HEV, PHEV, FCV, they’ve all got a footprint. I’ve crunched the numbers. I have to sit down and do the same for solar powered EVs and wind-powered FCVs, just to see how they compare to ICEs. Believe me, I was surprised when I saw the emissions numbers for the Nissan Leaf in heavy coal states.

  25. LoneWolffe evlover Scion iQ or Toyota RAV4 can only use about 20-25% of the energy stored in gas to actually turn the wheels. A Tesla is about three times more efficient.  

    Although coal power plants are dirty, but it’s a temporary solution for EV individuals to refuse to contribute to the millions of sources of pollution from running tail pipes in the first place, while government, business, and community can have the courage to get rid of coal power plants.

    Beijing in China is experiencing a very bad pollution from both coal burning plants as well as ICE.  Their solution is to give incentives to EV and reduce ICE in the city.

    If ICE is cleaner than a EV, Beijing wouldn’t give Domestic EV incentives and give each EV including Tesla owner a $15,000 license plate for free.

  26. evlover until every single tesla model s is powered by solar panels, i don’t think you can really make that statement. a Tesla Model S in West Virginia is dirtier than a Scion iQ or even a Toyota RAV4.

  27. evlover You’re right, but the ONLY reason that the Model S can do that is because of the Supercharger network. A Nissan Leaf isn’t making that trip, unless there’s a comparable CHAdeMO charging network across the US (not yet).
    Will an HFC make the trip, yet? No, because there are not enough fueling stations, YET. It’ll come.

  28. You could rephrase your illogical statement as:

    “Musk’s investment in solar power and battery electric vehicles, perhaps just a grain of salt is needed before the whole writing-off of” FOSSIL FUEL.

    He writes off fossil fuel because he does not believe in it.  It has nothing to do with his investment.

    He does not use Fuel Cell for his cars because it’s impractical to do so today.  May be it’s possible in a very far future but he needs to ramp up his production fast, today!

    This has nothing to do with his investment.

  29. With Beta & VHS, you can watch a movie from start to finish.  However, today, and in a foreseeable future, Tesla Model S can run from LAX to NYC in 67 hours, 21 minutes while Fuel Cell vehicle is unable to do that.  Yes, it can be done with Fuel Cell if you can wait, but each minute you wait is another minute putting up with fossil fuel.  Very bad!

  30. LoneWolffe Shumdit

    In regards to California being a small part, it’s still a significant number of vehicles. California is the USA’s largest auto market. One state representing 11% of all of USA sales is something no auto manufacturer can walk away from regardless of the losses they will take on the development and sales of those vehicles. Furthermore, by doing some of the R&D in other countries there are significant tax advantages for the company. This is why Japan and likely Europe will be involved in some way with the FCV program.

  31. Shumdit  While I agree that some automakers have pulled just such a stunt, such as with the Fiat 500e, even companies without ZEVs pay for their ZEV credits to sell in California. California may be the biggest market in the US, but on a worldwide scale is only a small part of Toyota’s marketplace.
    What would be the point of Toyota’s involvement with Japan to advance fuel cell vehicles if California were the only target?

  32. Toyota has not staked its future on hydrogen cars. It has staked its future on conventionally powered internal combustion engine cars and is only making hydrogen powered cars for the credits it receives in California. Since California decided to reward more ZEV credits for cars with a range that hydrogen cars can currently reach (at least in theory) they can sell far fewer of them and still get enough credits to sell the conventional gasoline powered vehicles in California. They really have no interest at all in selling hydrogen cars and will sell every one they make at a considerable loss but they can amortize that loss out over the hundreds of thousands of gasoline cars they will sell as a result of the credits they earn from selling those hydrogen cars (or practically giving them away might be more appropriate to say). Toyota talks a big game and obviously the Prius and other hybrid cars have been big sellers for them but in reality their only interest is continuing to sell the same gasoline powered cars they have always sold. Tesla is a completely different company with a completely different mindset towards the future.


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