Do you think you’ll ever drive a hydrogen-powered car?
I have, and from a driver’s perspective, they’re pretty cool. They’re essentially electric cars that create their own juice, using hydrogen and oxygen. Unlike a battery-powered car, which stops running if the battery drains, hydrogen cars are like gasoline ones: as long as you can find a hydrogen filling station, you won’t run out of electricity.
But it’s highly probable that you can’t find a hydrogen station, and unless you live in a specific area — even more precisely, southern California — it’s likely that you may never see one. Many of these new tech-heavy models are so-called “compliance cars,” built primarily so the automaker can meet stringent emissions and fuel standards with them.
Compliance cars aren’t new: the infamous General Motors EV1 electric car was one. All of the major automakers worked on electric vehicles during the 1990s, when the California Air Resources Board passed a requirement that they produce zero-emissions vehicles if they wanted to sell anything in the state. It’s a huge market, and the automakers complied, although all of them were made in small numbers, and were generally only available for lease, not for sale. When the regulation was challenged in court and subsequently eased, the EV1 went to the crusher.
Government regulations are a double-edged sword. On one hand, we need them, because manufacturers seldom make changes for the sake of being good corporate citizens. Without lawmakers, we would probably still be pumping leaded gas into our cars, still getting lousy mileage, and we might not even have seat belts.
On the other hand, regulations can also produce projects that never really go anywhere, but cost millions of dollars along the way. Those costs will eventually be spread across the company and into the everyday cars and trucks in the showroom. Even if the vehicle does make its way into production, it needs to sell in large numbers to recoup its costs, and compliance-cars don’t. So far, the only alternative powertrain that’s found anything resembling widespread success is the hybrid, and even then, after more than 15 years, it’s never achieved better than single-digit market share.
Of course, there are some chicken-and-egg problems for alternative powertrains. Without enough recharging or refueling stations, people won’t buy the vehicles, and if people aren’t buying the vehicles, companies aren’t going to put in the stations. You can only throw in so much government funding to build hydrogen stations before you realize you haven’t sold a tank of it all month.
And sometimes you can be too optimistic, as well. The U.S. government has had to scale back its mandate on ethanol fuel because Americans just couldn’t use up the huge amount that producers were required to make under the original proposal.
Proponents of hydrogen tout the fact that the only thing coming out the tailpipe is water. That’s true, but hydrogen production can be problematic. Most of it is made from natural gas, and some from coal or oil; the electricity used in production may be generated from coal; and it’s an energy carrier, not an energy source, so you never get the power out of it that you put into making it.
Still, it meets the mandate for zero-emissions cars, and for now, that’s all it really needs to do. Will you ever drive a hydrogen car? Maybe. But even if you never do, there’s a good chance that when you buy your next car, you’ll be helping to pay for one anyway.