Tesla: Cars That Fly and Swim, but No Hydrogen Fuel Cell


Tesla Motors and its founder, Elon Musk, have been in the press quite a bit lately, mostly for releasing all of their patents on Tesla models for use by other auto makers. Elon Musk also continues to attract attention for his unconventional business practices and visions for the company. Purportedly there are plans in the works at Tesla for cars that can fly, cars that swim underwater, and even more fuel-efficient electrical cell cars but one thing consumers and investors would not be seeing in Tesla showrooms anytime soon: hydrogen fuel cell technology.

TeslaHydrogen fuel cell technology has been in development for a number of years. The basic premise is similar to an electric battery cell, only in the case of the hydrogen cell, hydrogen and oxygen are added as fuel and not a fossil fuel or natural gas to create the chemical reaction which causes combustion and ultimately allows an engine to function. The potential advantages of such technology are that water is a renewable and sustainable fuel source, and the byproduct of the chemical reaction is simply water vapor, making it a zero emissions vehicle.

Currently there are many hydrogen fuel cell batteries powering all kinds of products on the market, from iPod speakers to flashlights. Cars, however, seem to be trickier both to produce and to market. Honda released the FCX Clarity in 2008, making it available to a few test customers in California, Japan and Europe. The car is only available on lease for about $600/month and this fee includes collision insurance roadside assistance, and repairs to the fuel cell, engine, or body of the car. The two greatest drawbacks for the FCX at this time, however, are what would be expected: the cost to make the car is astronomical, making it unaffordable for the average consumer, and there are not nearly enough fueling stations for the FCX to become a viable alternative for a large market. Thus, until Honda can reduce the cost and find a way to make fueling more convenient (there have been ideas for a home fueling station), the FCX Clarity’s growth in the market has been stymied.

The news which sparked Elon Musk’s remarks about hydrogen cell technology being “mind-bogglingly stupid,” was the reports that Toyota has cracked the code to the affordable hydrogen cell car, with GM right on its heels. Toyota has released plans for its FCS (Fuel Cell Sedan) to be released in Japan around April 2015, with a tentative cost of $69,000. That’s more than half of the production cost of the Honda FCX, which is around $149,000. GM is still testing its fuel cell vehicles, with its most recent press release stating that its 119-vehicle fleet had reached a milestone of 3 million miles of emissions-free driving. The same press release revealed that GM and Honda have been collaborating on this vehicle, with the aim of mass commercialization by 2020 It appears that the two vehicles, from Toyota and GM/Honda respectively, are attacking the problem of commercial viability in different ways: Toyota is pushing to be the first vehicle with a limited (though larger than Honda’s initial offering in 2008) release, where GM and Honda are doing extensive testing and setting up of fueling stations before releasing their FCV(Fuel Cell Vehicle) on a larger scale.

Only time will tell which automaker will in the fuel cell race, and more importantly, whether the gas-guzzling American market will bite. One certain thing is that Tesla will not be throwing its hat into the hydrogen race, however, with inventor Musk believing that cars that are able to fly or swim underwater are much more viable at this time. When questioned on why he believed that hydrogen fuel cells were not viable, Musk did not offer much in the way of scientific explanation, preferring in 2013 to expound upon the reasons the technology was a “marketing ploy,” and “bulls**t, except for in rockets.” The one bit of scientific information he offered was to say that hydrogen alone could not produce the power generated in a lithium-ion battery pack such as the one in Tesla models, however specs on all three hydrogen fuel vehicle models show each containing a lithium-ion battery with the same voltage as the Tesla’s. Bob Carter, Toyota’s VP of Automobile Operations, had a haughty response to Musk’s most recent comments last month: “Personally I don’t really care what Elon…has to say about fuel cells. It’s very reminiscent of 1998, 1999 when we first introduced the Prius.”

For now, it appears that Tesla is happy to say no to the hydrogen fuel cell game preferring to work on the more Jetson-esque endeavors of flying and swimming cars, but if the new technology hits the market as well as GM and Toyota are predicting in the next five years, Musk may change his tune. It is difficult to say for sure, however, as the trail-blazing inventor does not seem to follow or care much about market trends, but rather does what he feels will further the cause of the electric fuel cell vehicle as the most viable transportation solution in the world. It is uncertain whether hydrogen fuel cells, selling or not, will be able to change his mind or Tesla’s production.

By Layla Klamt

Inside EVs

23 Responses to "Tesla: Cars That Fly and Swim, but No Hydrogen Fuel Cell"

  1. ricardo costa ciabotti   July 27, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Nossa Mâe Deus! piedade dos terrícolas pois os venuzianos tem um padrão conquistado em que só trabalham 2 horas por dia e são felizes não há gorverno não há dinheiro e aqui não se divide nada só há egoismos porque essa mania dos terráqueos de sustentar o luxo de alguns e a pobreza de quase todos explorando os irmãos não tem vergonha não essa gentinha…

  2. Martin Winlow   July 19, 2014 at 10:40 am

    “…but if the new technology hits the market as well as GM and Toyota are predicting in the next five years, Musk may change his tune.” That is a jolly big ‘if’ considering billions of $ have already been spent on trying to make a practical FCV for the last 50 years+. Several large organisations have tried and given up.

    The question is why would they even bother when you consider that 98% of all H2 is derived from natural gas, a – you know… fossil fuel – and that there isn’t any more than half a dozen places in the world where you can refuel a privately owned FCV and, oh, yes… you can’t buy one and won’t be able to for Lord knows how long! On top of that, to install H2 refuelling stations that would number only one 20th of the number of existing US ‘gas’ stations would cost at least US$12b (9 noughts). Then the efficiency is woeful compared to a battery EV and, in winter, it piddles water everywhere it goes!

    I’m just guessing, but I expect this – and more – is why Mr Musk is less than impressed by the notion of the FCV. Between him and the CEO of any of the largest auto-makers, I know who my money is on.

    GM has already gone bust (saved by the nation for some reason) but if it and Toyota (not to mention Honda and Hyundai, too) continue to bet the farm on this patent nonsense, both will founder.

    As for Mr Gunnar’s input, I appreciate this may sound splendid but just how many vehicles will this idea fuel? A few hundred? You’d get much better use out of the process by selling it for heating your home. Meanwhile, with an EV and a half decent sized PV array on your roof you could be completely and renewably self sufficient. MW

    • Steve23   July 19, 2014 at 11:56 am

      Cost to the consumer is what’s important.
      In my earlier comment I talked about the forklift industry.
      Why don’t you explain why the big warehouses (Wall-Mart is one example)
      are replacing their battery forklifts with fuel cell forklifts.

      • Mark   July 19, 2014 at 12:48 pm

        Simply the cost to the consumer will be the issue. And the only reason hydrogen is used now for very limited applications is it is being funded and lowered by government. If he warehouse wanted to have a little extra room for battery swapping they would do that as it would be cheaper and safer.
        Do you really think with big oil getting themselves inclined with hydrogen production and it’s sale that they will keep it cheap? You are not very wise than. If a transition from gas to hydrogen happened it will not save the consumer one penny once the government stops funding hydrogen for the oil companies.

        • Steve23   July 19, 2014 at 2:08 pm

          We’re talking about the cost of batteries vs hydrogen.
          EV cars have been around since the beginning of the auto industry.
          Many, many,many billions of $ have been spent on research for EV cars
          and yet very little to show for it.
          EV forklifts have been around a lot longer then fuel cell forklifts yet are
          losing out to them. Why?
          If a EV forklift can’t hold it’s own vs a fuel cell forklift how’s it going
          to hold out against fuel cell cars.
          Time will tell.

  3. Mark Gunnar   July 10, 2014 at 11:32 am

    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.

    Hyundai “Tuscon” Fuel Cell Vehicle
    $499 per month w/ Free Fuel & Free Maintenance from Hyundai!!! (pure water for exhaust)

    Toyota joins California Hydrogen Push in Station Funding – Bloomberg

  4. Steve23   July 8, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    For you electric battery people.
    Why are the big warehouses switching from battery powered forklifts
    to fuel cell forklifts. These big corporations are making decisions based
    on the initial cost and running costs.
    If what you electric battery people are saying is true than why are all these
    major corporations (Wal-mart for example) so stupid and replacing there
    battery forklift fleets with fuel-cell forklifts?

    • Capt601   July 8, 2014 at 10:48 pm

      Haven’t heard or read about a single one.

      • Steve23   July 9, 2014 at 5:56 am

        Well start reading.

  5. Duncan Cairncross   July 8, 2014 at 6:14 pm

    You missed the real problem with Hydrogen fuel cells,

    The efficiency – even if you produce the hydrogen from a renewable source with 100% efficiency you lose ~ 30% of the available energy in compressing the hydrogen gas to usable densities

    This means a fuel cell car at best will be 50% more expensive to operate than a BEV

  6. Capt601   July 8, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    And guess who is involved with the productions and distribution of hydrogen??? Big oil. So the cost will never be cheap as they need to make their money. A fillup will still be $50-75

  7. Capt601   July 8, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    Seems as if you forgot to mention the process to produce the hydrogen. Very dirty. Even more so ya. Producing gasoline. Takes lots of electricity just to produce hydrogen, so very far from clean. And why change electricity to hurdrogen, just to use the hurdrogen to produce electricity in a car. Very inefficient.
    Another article poorly researched by a journalist.

  8. mckenzu   July 7, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    You obviously have no understanding of fuel cell technology. This article is a pathetic attempt to put down Tesla.

  9. zak650   July 7, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    One of the advantages of an electric car is that you can refill it at home, no more going to the gas station. Going to a hydrogen refueling station does not make your life easier. It makes as much sense as having to recharge your cell phone at a gas station instead of at home.

    • Bob   July 8, 2014 at 2:12 pm

      The main objective is to reduce pollution, not to keep us from leaving the house.

      • Capt601   July 8, 2014 at 2:50 pm

        You do realize there are tens of thousands of public chargers around the country? Or just pretend you don’t know about them. Very easy to drive an EV anywhere, especially a Tesla.

  10. Ben Helton   July 7, 2014 at 10:56 am

    It’s amazing how irrational Elon Musk is;

    Let’s build a colony on Mars. Let’s make cars the not only can drive, but fly, and dive into the water as a submersible. (You think sealing a door from high speed winds is tough!?)

    But, by all means, lets not take advantage of a technology that already exists and works well. That would just be ‘fool cell’ish

    His thoughts on range anxiety of a BEV: “I mean, if you want to go on a long distance trip, just take your private jet! Duh”

  11. Brian   July 7, 2014 at 9:38 am

    Fuel cell vehicles are like getting your miles traveled at retail, while battery electric vehicles are like getting your miles traveled wholesale. EV’s eliminate the middleman. You can use electricity to make fuel, hydrogen (electrolysis or natural gas reformation), or gasoline for that matter, to go down the road or you can use the electricity to go down the road.

    The only alleged benefit would be refueling speed. However, that is erased by battery pack swapping.

    “…all three hydrogen fuel vehicle models show each containing a lithium-ion battery with the same voltage as the Tesla’s.” Sorry if I sound snarky, but this is almost meaningless comparison. it’s like saying two ICE vehicles have fuel pumps that run at the same pressure. A valid comparison would be the capacity of the batteries, Amp-hours, and power rating, Kilowatts. You’ll find Tesla has a larger capacity because it has to, and it probably has higher power rating given the size of the vehicle and its performance.

  12. ISTIRAWA   July 7, 2014 at 9:10 am

    CMCNestT, thank you.

    In addition, given the unsinkable Titanic sank, and the ultra-safe Japanese nuclear plant leaked, it will take one H2 tank to go wrong for historic automobile blow up to occur.

  13. Toby   July 7, 2014 at 8:01 am

    hmm imagine range anxiety with a flying car or under water. elon your losing credibility with the public as you become adversarial. Your beginning to sound like a tea partycandidate.

  14. Aaron   July 7, 2014 at 7:08 am

    All the major car companies still want vehicles that still need service. What do you want to bet this fuel cell motor needs oil changes. They see the writing on the wall with fully electric vehicles.

  15. CMCNestT   July 7, 2014 at 12:39 am

    Water is not a source of fuel for fuel cell vehicles. Electricity is used to separate hydrogen from oxygen in water then the hydrogen becomes a fuel medium because it takes much more energy to produce hydrogen than can be derived from it in a fuel cell. Any renewable electricity used to separate water from hydrogen can be used more efficiently in a lithium ion battery back to propel a vehicle forward. Using water electrolysis a kilogram of H2 cost over $20. You get about 70 miles for one kg of H2. For $20 of electricity you get about 530 miles in a Tesla Model S. That is why almost all hydrogen is derived from natural gas and the carbon waste is simply released into the air. Using this method a kg of H2 is about $12.50.

    Bob Carter is completely wrong. The same people that purchased first and second generation Prius are the ones telling him fuel cells are bovine feces. Hybrids had a ready built fueling network. Electrics have a refueling network 99% built already. Among the many problems with hydrogen is that there are only 13 public stations in the US and they cost about $2,000,000 a pop to construct.

    Just because Toyota slapped a 7 million yen/ ~$69k MSRP on the FCS does not mean they have figured out how to make the vehicle for a price below that. It remains to be seen whether they will actually sell or just lease the FCS. They will limit production to 2500 per year, They may well be subsidizing each FCS for millions of yen due to subsidies/carbon credits. If they were actually making money on these they would sell as many as the market demanded. Tesla sells the Model S as fast as Panasonic can deliver battery cells.

    • Ben Helton   July 7, 2014 at 6:51 pm

      Sorry buddy, you’re math on the price of electrolysis derived hydrogen is way off.
      A modern hydrogen generator can produce a kg of hydrogen with about 57kw of electricity. Here, where I am at, wholesale energy is about $0.045 / kwh. That’s about $2.60 in straight electricity costs. Add in other costs such as; machine cost and installation, maintenance, and ultimately, profit for the investor – the hydrogen will run anywhere from $7-$10 / kg.

      $7 for 70 miles is pretty much the same as 33 miles for $3.39. Places paying closer to $4.00 / gal will be the ones paying closer to $10 / kg…

      Get it?


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