Hydrogen Cars are Cool and Totally Not Ready

The tech is there, but the infrastructure? Not so much

There are two great cars on the market I have to tell people not to buy: The Kia Nexo and Toyota Mirai. Both of them are solid modes of transportation. Neither has issues with drivability, tech, comfort levels, or even space. The only problem is also the biggest hurdle and its main selling point: both are powered by hydrogen. 

The 2022 Toyota Mirai in blue in the desert

Toyota

On paper, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles sound like the perfect solution to our climate crisis woes. They fuel up as quickly as a gas-powered car, and their only emission is water. Water you can drink if you're so inclined, but I wouldn't recommend it; I've actually tasted the water that spewed from the Toyota Mirai. Sadly, fueling stations just haven't been built in any way that makes these vehicles available outside of Northern and Southern California and parts of New England.

Here’s a Car You Can’t Buy

Not only can you not fuel these vehicles in most parts of the United States, but you also can't actually buy or lease them outside of the above geographic areas. Not that you would want to. Because while you can potentially charge an EV anywhere with an outlet, a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle essentially becomes an expensive slab of metal, glass, and plastic once it's outside of its comfort fueling zone. 

Toyota, for its part, has been pushing hydrogen for years. The automaker partnered with companies to help build out the infrastructure but hasn't done much financially to make it happen. That's understandable; it's a car company, not a fuel company. Sure, Volkswagen has Electrify America, but putting electric charging stations in a parking lot is likely a lot easier than installing high-pressure tanks and coming up with a delivery system to refuel those tanks so drivers can continue to drive their Toyota Mirais. 

Electricity is sort of everywhere. Gasoline and hydrogen (unless it’s created on-site) have to be trucked in. That’s a big hurdle for anyone wanting to get into the fueling business. 

Hyundai, on the other hand, is based in South Korea, which has a solid plan to build out a robust hydrogen fueling infrastructure because the government wants to be a fuel cell leader. So even if the Nexo doesn’t sell more than a few hundred units in the United States, it’s still a viable option in Korea. 

In the US, there’s really no incentive for that sort of build-out—the vehicles aren’t there to build it out. But without the infrastructure, no one will buy the fuel cell vehicles that companies like Toyota and Hyundai sell. Last year, Honda pulled its Clarity hydrogen fuel cell vehicle off the market.

Sweet Incentives Don’t Begat Infrastructure

Still, these automakers really want you to buy their vehicles if you live in the right spot. For example, both Hyundai and Toyota offer free fuel. Hyundai will provide three years or $15,000 for fuel; Toyota ups the timetable to six years but offers the same amount of money for the Mirai. Plus, when you need to leave the area, they both offer free gas-powered vehicle rentals. 

2021 Kia Nexo parked at 940 E 2nd Street

Kia

It sounds like a great deal, but whenever I’ve reviewed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, at least 20 percent of the fueling stations in Northern California have been out of order. At one point, while driving the new Mirai (again, a very nice car), I calculated that 60 percent of the stations were out of service. Then there was the hydrogen shortage a few years ago. It probably wasn’t a good time to have a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in your driveway at that time. Mainly because it just sat in your driveway.

So right now, maybe not the best bet unless, again, you live in a very specific area and you have a second car. Just in case. That’s not to say that hydrogen is a dead proposition, however. Long-haul big rigs running on hydrogen make way more sense than throwing gigantic batteries under semis.

Big Rig Solution

Adding batteries to semis to give them the range needed to do their job means adding weight, which reduces the amount of cargo they can carry. It’s a losing game of weight-to-range because their ability to move large volumes of freight over long distances is diminished when you add a battery to allow it to cover the distance needed. 

That’s where hydrogen fuel cells come in. The weight is reduced because you don’t need huge batteries, just fuel tanks. The vehicles can refuel quicker than if they were EVs (time is money for truckers), and there’s very little loss to the amount of cargo that can be carried over long distances. 

Another fun thing about long-haul trucking: there’s already a set infrastructure for refueling called truck stops. And adding hydrogen stations, while not without its issues, would be far easier than trying to retrofit every local gas station in town. 

"Whenever I’ve reviewed a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, at least 20 percent of the fueling stations in Northern California have been out of order."

At some point, long-haul trucking will have to make the switch from gas to something else. Hydrogen fuel cells make the most sense right now. Maybe in five years, there’ll be something else. But for now, the power of the most abundant element in the universe is the way to move large trucks from state to state. 

The side effect is that a fueling infrastructure will emerge with a strong backbone. It’ll begin with truck stops along major interstates, but those stations will allow automakers to sell their fuel cell vehicles in more than two states. Eventually, as those vehicles become more prevalent on the road, hydrogen fueling stations will appear outside of truck stops to meet demand. 

Then, if all that continues to scale up, automotive journalists will stop telling everyone about cool cars you shouldn’t or can’t buy because they run on hydrogen. Instead, they’ll tell you about a vehicle that emits water, fuels up quickly, and can be purchased nearly everywhere. You know, like a real vehicle people can actually use.

Want to know more about EVs? We have a whole section dedicated to electric vehicles!

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