During a speech in Germany recently, Tesla CEO Elon Musk called fuel cell technology for vehicles "so bullsh*t." His comment came right as General Motors marked 100,000 miles of real-world driving in an experimental hydrogen fuel cell SUV. So are these zero emissions vehicles a bunch of bull, or should we still be bullish about them?
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Musk was at a new Tesla service center in Munich making announcements related to the automaker's expansion and investment in Germany when he went on a tangent (video) about electric vehicle naysayers. He said, "And then they'll say certain technologies like fuel cell and it's like, oh god, fuel cell is so bullsh*t. Except in a rocket." The loose crowd laughed and clapped.
"It's a marketing thing," he continued. "But the reality is if you took a fuel cell vehicle and you took a best case scenario for a fuel cell vehicle in terms of mass and volume required to go a particular range, as well as the cost of the fuel cell system - if you took the best case of that, it doesn't even equal the current state-of-the-art in lithium-ion batteries. So there's no way for it to be a workable technology."
Automakers including Honda, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors appear to disagree. They've been investing in hydrogen fuel cell technology development for years. In addition to logging 100,000 miles on its hydrogen fuel cell Chevy Equinox, General Motors' fuel cell fleet has racked up about 3 million miles altogether, according to Inhabitat's Marc Carter. It's easy to see the draw. Hydrogen is so abundant that it could be a virtually unlimited source of power, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall argued in Wired back in late 2004.
Admittedly, it's been a while since I thought about hydrogen fuel cell cars. They occupy the same part of my brain as other environmental topics that were hot circa 2007. Only now there are Teslas on the roads. In some areas you can't throw a rock without hitting a Prius. Municipal composting is a thing. And last weekend I saw a solar panel attached to the roof of a truck. If hydrogen fuel cell vehicles held so much promise, where the heck are they?
Part of the reason they're perpetually in development may be that the infrastructure for them isn't remotely in place, as Wired's Damon Lavrinc pointed out. It seems harder to create than one for electric charging. Plus, this is complex technology. Cost is still a factor. Efficiency is still a factor. While I don't think we should give up on fuel cells entirely for transportation, I am having trouble seeing customers clamoring for individual vehicles in the future.
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Musk is clearly biased as an electric vehicle champion but after his blunt charge he makes compelling arguments against fuel cell technology for personal transportation. "Hydrogen is quite a dangerous gas," he said near the end of his Tesla speech. "It's suitable for the upper stage of rockets, but not for cars."
Photo: A Daimler AG hydrogen fuel cell vehicle based on the Mercedes-Benz A-Class taken in 2009. Credit: Robert Couse-Baker