Why The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Range Advantage Doesn’t Matter

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On Monday, the Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle made its official world debut at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Promising 300 miles of driving range between five-minute fill-ups, the Toyota Mirai seemingly overcomes the biggest hurdles of electric vehicles. But what good is a 300-mile range if there aren’t enough fueling stations?

Right now there are just 15 public hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S., and while Toyota plans to increase that number via partnerships in California and the Northeast, the fact of the matter is that buyers of the Mirai are going to be much more limited in where they can travel. Any EV owner will tell you that depending on where you live, finding a public charging port can be an adventure.

But in an emergency situation, an electric car can be plugged into any grounded 120-volt socket, something not feasible for hydrogen vehicles. With a growing number of EV owners there’s also a growing number of privately-owned Level 2 chargers at many homes and businesses across the nation, and the ever-growing number of Tesla Superchargers means Model S owners can cross the country, for free, while never having to wait more than an hour to charge up. Hydrogen cars are years and years away from being able to cross the country in any amount of time.

On paper, 300+ miles of driving range sounds good, but the reality is that it’s more like 150 miles until more hydrogen stations are up and running. Sure, refueling in as little as three minutes is nice and all, but the fact remains that hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are going to be even more limited in where they can travel than a lot of plug-in vehicles. By comparison, there are now literally thousands of electric car charging stations spread out across nearly every state in the union. Finding a place to plug-in isn’t nearly as big a deal as it was just four years ago, and with Level 2 charging stations now costing as little as $500, the number of places to plug-in is growing exponentially.

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A single hydrogen fuel site on the other hand costs about $1.4 million each, which is the primary reason they’re few and far between. To replace the more than 100,000 gasoline stations with hydrogen fuel would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to serve a fuel that, at best, will be on price parity with gasoline. As it stands, 300 miles worth of hydrogen gas will cost $50, though Toyota is willing to pick up the tab for up to the first three years after purchase. Hyundai on the other hand wants Big Oil to pick up the tab for building hydrogen stations because they know it’s going to cost a fortune.

So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. But how long will it take until a nationwide network of hydrogen stations is up and running? By Toyota’s own estimates, they hope to have about 3,000 FCVs on the road by the end of 2017, along with 48 new fueling stations in California and another 12 in the Northeast by the end of 2016. Yet Tesla already has over 100 Superchargers online in the U.S. alone, and spread out in a much more usable fashion rather than clustered around a couple of population centers. Nissan just signed a partnership giving LEAF owners access to thousands of charging stations for free. Hydrogen has some huge hurdles to overcome just to catch up to electric cars, nevermind conventional vehicles.

How long does Toyota think it’ll take to bring hydrogen cars to the masses? The Japanese automaker plans to deliver “tens of thousands” of FCVs by the 2020s, but thats not even a drop in the bucket in a global car market that already exceeds 80 million vehicles. Yet today in every state in the U.S. you can walk into almost any Chevy or Nissan dealership and buy a plug-in car. The same is also true for Tesla Motors, except in a select few states that hate freedom.

Even once Toyota gets its near-term infrastructure up and running, drivers won’t be able to go much further north than Carson City or too far west of Pam Springs. Toyota just sponsored an advertisement making fun of the BMW i3 for being unable to complete a trip from Van Nuys to Las Vegas; the Mirai make make it there, but it sure as hell won’t make it back home, because the one hydrogen station in Sin City isn’t open to the public.

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Finally there’s the cost of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Even at $59,000, Toyota is losing a ton of money on each hydrogen car it sells…perhaps as much as $100,000 per vehicle. Tesla is grossing as much as 25% profit on each Model S sold though, and in the world of auto manufacturing, financing a money-losing vehicle is only tolerated for so long.

GM reportedly broke even on the Chevy Volt, and Nissan is nearing profitability with the LEAF; but for Toyota, making so much as a dime on hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is a distant possibility at best. Factor in the cost of building a non-existent infrastructure and decades worth of research costs, and Toyota basically needs to hit a homerun for hydrogen for it to stand any hope in an increasigly competitive and efficient new car market.

By far though the biggest competitor for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are conventional gas cars. Hybrid sales are stumbling in the face of more efficient engines, which hurts Toyota in particular, and with gas prices going even lower the disadvantages of hydrogen grow more apparent; even with free fuel, the “payback” date for the Mirai compared to a conventional sedan with so-so gas mileage must measure in the decades.

But unless gas prices drop down to $1 a gallon, electric cars will still have a tremendous advantage in fuel costs over both gasoline and hydrogen cars. That leaves only “true believers” in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles as potential customers, as the price tag is far too high for a middle class family to “experiment” with. But what if those true believers knew that the hydrogen fuel was probably produced from natural gas? Not exactly a zero emissions car anymore, is it?

Until such a time as hydrogen cars can travel beyond the state they were purchased, the total range Toyota and other automakers tout doesn’t matter so much. That means hydrogen fuel cell vehicles really only have on advantage, a refill time of between 3 and 5 minutes. At a Level 3 charger cars like the Nissan LEAF and BMW i3 can get an 80% charge in as little as 30 minutes, but that’s still six to ten times longer than hydrogen cars take.

But everyday battery and charger technology chips away at that advantage, and with a little planning most EV owners never have to plug in anywhere but home. After decades of false starts and broken promises, hydrogen cars are finally hitting the road, but in a way that reminds me more of the EV1 debacle than Tesla Motors.

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.