A look at the lightest alternative fuel
Today’s automakers have taken on the role of environmental stewardship in new and exciting ways. With growing consumer pressure, the world’s top automotive brands have invested heavily in environmentally friendly vehicles.
Sure, there’s a range of eco-friendly vehicles on the market, but an emerging competitor is hydrogen cars. So what is the state of hydrogen vehicles in 2022 and beyond? How do they compare to other eco-friendly options?
History of hydrogen vehicles
To understand the status of hydrogen vehicles, knowing their history helps. Many people credit General Motors with the first hydrogen vehicle in 1966, which looks like a solid color version of Fred’s Mystery Machine. This van ran on a fuel cell using liquid hydrogen and oxygen. It could travel about 124 miles and had a top speed of almost 70 miles per hour.
In addition to the Electrovan, developers have used hydrogen for other projects like space missions. NASA used hydrogen fuel for its Apollo 11 mission and continued to do so for other companies in the 1980s and 1990s. Research on hydrogen vehicles plummeted until the 1990s when European countries announced plans for a more hydrogen-centric car, such as the 2005-07 bi-fuel BMW 7 Series with a V12 engine running on compressed hydrogen or gasoline. Other companies, led by Toyota and Honda, focused on fuel cell vehicles that converted hydrogen to electricity on board and were therefore essentially electric vehicles.
Hydrogen vehicles in 2022
In 2022, consumers have multiple choices of alternative fuel vehicles. Electricity is among the most popular because it has been around for longer and there has been considerably more research. Electrified vehicles (electric hybrids) have been on the market since the end of the 1990s with the Toyota Prius. Today there is nearly 8,000 fast charging stations for electric cars in the US (and many more of the slower Tier 2 type.
The extensive infrastructure of electric vehicles makes them a direct competitor to alternative fuel sources. Hydrogen vehicles are not as common as electric vehicles and probably won’t pass them this decade. California is essentially the only place in the United States with fueling infrastructure for hydrogen vehicles (about 50 stations currently). Only two hydrogen vehicles are currently on the market: the Toyota Mirai and the Hyundai Nexo, although other companies have presented prototypes of other models.
The future of hydrogen vehicles
The future of hydrogen cars is brighter in other vehicles. Factors such as regulation, investment, and research and development will come into play.
Buses and trains are likely to be among the first applications to switch to hydrogen (several buses are already operating in revenue service), with the Hydrogen Council predicting that heavy goods vehicles will fall further down the curve with approximately 2.5% hydrogen adoption in 2030.
Advantages and disadvantages of hydrogen
There are advantages and disadvantages to each energy source. Some of the disadvantages of hydrogen, which have slowed its development in recent years, are its production and its safety. On the production side, it is more difficult to create this fuel than its alternatives. Hydrogen is the most abundant element on earth, but the molecule does not exist on its own, so you must use technology like electrolysis to extract the hydrogen.
In addition to its production, hydrogen fuel has raised questions about his safety in vehicles. Hydrogen is more flammable than gasoline, electric or natural gas vehicles. The element burns with a flame almost invisible to the human eye, so any hydrogen vehicle needs a special flame detector.
Despite these issues, there are benefits to using hydrogen instead of other green energy sources. For example, a long-haul electric truck needs a long time to recharge— until six o’clock. A hydrogen truck would take about 15 minutes to refuel, saving truckers time and promoting sustainability with clean fuel.
Expand the use of hydrogen vehicles
Hydrogen cars have come a long way since Chevrolet’s Electrovan. Nearly 60 years later, hydrogen vehicles are slowly becoming mainstream along with other alternatives to fossil fuels. Electric vehicles currently dominate the sedan market, but hydrogen could pave the way for buses, trains and long-haul trucking by the end of this decade and beyond.
Editor’s note: Clean Fleet Report has driven the current hydrogen vehicles on the market (see review links below) like several previous versions, including the BMW 7 Series. These are real cars that can hold their own against comparable models on the road, but as noted in the Martin story, the refueling infrastructure is limited and not as reliable as one would hope, so their time still seems to be in the future.
Our hydrogen vehicle experiences:
Road test: 2022 Fuel Cell Toyota Mirai
First timer: 2021 Toyota Mirai
Flash Player: 2020 Hyundai Nexo Fuel Cell
First trip: 2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell