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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.
Hydrogen 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