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Fuel Cell Vehicle Myth Nine – One is “Obviously Better” than the Other

Are electric vehicles "obviously better" than fuel cell vehicles?
Are electric vehicles “obviously better” than fuel cell vehicles?

How about that for a vague title? Perhaps the biggest argument between hydrogen fuel cell vehicles and battery electric vehicles is attempting to prove that one is better than the other.

The comparison between fuel cell vehicles and electric vehicles, however, isn’t really straightforward. They have their strengths and weaknesses, not only regarding environmental impact, but as regards expense, convenience, and capability as well. While the powertrains of both battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are essentially electric, perhaps their storage mediums are the most divisive and distinguishing. Considering that the upcoming Toyota Mirai, that is, the production version of the Toyota FCV, and the Tesla Model S 60 kWh are pretty much in the same price range, how do these two vehicles compare in the convenience and capability department?

Both the Mirai and the Model S need specialized equipment for refueling / recharging on the road, a hydrogen fueling station for the fuel cell vehicle, and a Supercharger for the battery electric vehicle. On a Supercharger, the Model S can get an 80% charge in thirty minutes, a full charge in about an hour. The fuel cell vehicle, on the other hand, takes just a few minutes to refuel, just like a conventional vehicle. Still, I have to judge this one a toss-up. For example, you can charge the Model S at home overnight, but there are no home-based hydrogen fueling stations yet. Secondly, the average thirty- to forty-minute highway break is plenty of time to let a Model S recharge without being an inconvenience.

One interesting difference is the difference between cost and range. While the Mirai and Model S cost about the same, they have about one hundred miles range difference between them. The Mirai has a range of about 300 miles, while the Model S has a range of around 200 miles (EPA rating), but that’s not the interesting part. We’ve already discussed refueling / recharging times above, but what if you want more range?

More range is a breeze in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, because all the vehicle needs is bigger fuel tanks. The Mirai’s two fuel tanks hold an estimated 27.1 ℓ (compressed), so adding another 60 miles range per fill might cost another $1,000? (I’m not sure, exactly, but just making some inferences on commercially-available hydrogen canisters.) On the other hand, for the Tesla Model S to add the same range, the battery pack adds an additional $10,000 to the price tag. Put another way, it might cost about $17 to add a mile of range to the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, but it costs $170 to add a mile to the battery electric vehicle.

Comparing fuel cell and electric vehicles may find some parts quantifiable, but whether one is “better,” or which one will “win,” I believe, may be somewhat harder to distinguish. Convenience seems like a toss-up, but the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle may be ahead on cost for its capability.

Images © Olathe Toyota Parts Center

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  1. Let’s see.  The typical driver goes more than 150 mile on less than 5%  of all driving days.  Let’s see how that works out for an EV and a FCEV driver.

    Let’s start with the 95+% days that they don’t go over 150 miles.  The EV driver gets into their charged car in the morning.  The FCEV driver may have to stop by the station and tank up.  The FCEV driver pays more than 2x as much per mile for fuel/charge for every mile driven, every day.

    Then on the <5% of long distance travel.  

    The EV driver drives 200 miles, stops 30 minutes for a 170 mile charge during which they eat/pee/check messages/walk the dog, drives 170, stops for 30 minutes for another 170 miles and pees/gets something to drink/checks messages and drives on.  More than 500 miles with an hour of non-driving time.

    The FCEV driver drives 300 miles, stops 10 minutes to fill up.  Then stops 30 minutes to eat/pee/check messages/walk the dog.  Then they drive on, probably taking another 10 minute break to pee and grab something to drink.  Maybe a bit longer if there’s a message that needs returning.  

    End of day.  FCEV driver gets there 10 – 20 minutes sooner.  Having spent over 2x as much per mile for fuel/charge.

    Great! Save an average of 15 minutes a half dozen days a year in exchange for the privilege of paying more than 2x per mile to drive.

    Pay for extra range?  And use it how often?  And it would save you how much time?


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