x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Electricity is charging ahead of hydrogen

How has the battery managed to conquer the superior hydrogen fuel cell?

Visitors look at Honda FCX Clarity at the Auto China 2008 auto show in Beijing. AP Photo
Visitors look at Honda FCX Clarity at the Auto China 2008 auto show in Beijing. AP Photo

I wonder if this is going to end up like Betamax?

For those of the YouTube generation for whom everything is digitally perfect, there were once these contraptions called videotapes. Admittedly large and clumsy compared with your iPods, iPads and iPhones, they were our generation's only choice when it came to recording our favourite moments. No, they weren't particularly convenient, but they were what we had when it came to storing our most cherished memories. Look deep in your father's sock drawer and you'll probably find samples of these ancient artefacts.

What you won't find, however, is one labeled Betamax. Betamax was Sony's version of the classic tape format and was actually introduced before VHS. It was also, by many accounts, superior to JVC's VHS format, thanks to superior picture quality and reliability (one thing the digital generation has never had to deal with is the frustration of your favourite tape tangling halfway through a movie). Yet in less than a decade, Beta had disappeared and VHS owned the market until those infernal DVDs came along. All manner of reasons were given for the ascendance of JVC's technology, the most common of which was superior editing and playback capabilities for professional videographers, though it may just have been a matter of VHS tapes offering three hours of recording time to the 60 minutes of a typical Betamax. Like Windows triumphing over Apple's far superior operating system, it remains that a more sophisticated technology lost out to an inferior one for reasons that had nothing to do with consumer satisfaction or preference.

I'm starting to get the same feeling about electric cars. Never mind that they will be, for the present and near future, as impractical as the Pony Express - useless in cold weather (and almost as bad in hot), limited in range and requiring frequent and prolonged resting/feeding breaks - drivers have taken up the siren call of supposedly emissions-free motoring and will not abide any questions of an electrified future. Never mind that the much-vaunted Better Place battery-swapping scheme seems like nothing more than a Machiavellian scheme to gain control of all automotive battery manufacturing and thus, in a Bill Gates-like monopoly, the entire automotive industry. Never mind that superior, longer-term technology like hydrogen fuel cells - that promise equally emissions-free yet far more practical motoring - have been put on the back burner thanks to our obsession with anything electric. Ignore, even, the fact that this recent fascination with battery-powered cars is nothing new; steam- and electric-powered cars competed with the internal combustion engine at the turn of the century (automotive battery swapping was even tried as early as 1897) and lost for the same reason that they are an inferior solution today. We are forging ahead as if consumers will welcome, Windows-like, another inferior technology that will make all our lives smaller and more complicated.

Google, for instance, recently added plug-in vehicle-charging station locations to its US mapping service (type in "EV charging station near …" and you'll be rewarded with the now-familiar little balloons showing the closest high-voltage outlet). Nissan still promises hundreds of thousands of Leafs despite a dreadfully slow start to sales/production roll-out. Fisker edges closer to giving us an overpriced luxury EV, all thanks to an incredibly generous half-a-billion-buck cash infusion from the US federal government.

Meanwhile, closer to my Canadian home, the Prince Edward Island provincial government has decommissioned two hydrogen=fueled buses that were part of the capitals' Charlottetown Transit for lack of federal subsidies. Sympatico.ca reports that fuel had to be trucked in from Quebec because local production, via wind turbines, was cut back for lack of funding. And in the US, President Barack Obama's 2010 budget cut development funds for hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles to US$68 million from US$169 million, a figure dwarfed by the money being doled out to EV manufacturers.

Indeed, hydrogen programmes are seemingly being cut back the world over. GM's once extensive fleet of hydrogen-powered Equinoxes hardly warrants a public relations' e-mail these days, BMW's once headline-seeking Hydrogen7 hydrogen-fueled V12 7 Series is nowhere to be found and Ballard Power Systems, once the darling of the ecoweenie set and proclaimed by many news outlets as the future of the hydrogen-powered car, is now completely out of the automotive business.

Though diminished, development does continue, however. Hyundai recently announced a Blue2 hydrogen-powered car at the Seoul motor show and Mercedes-Benz and Honda soldier on with significant fuel-cell development. Mercedes is conducting an around-the-world trek with its hydrogen-powered B-Class and Honda's FCX Clarity is being leased to high-profile intenders like actress Q'orianka Kilcher.

The big problem, like electric cars, is refuelling, with Los Angeles currently having only 10 hydrogen fill-up stations. It's worth noting, however, that while hydrogen-powered cars face tremendous obstacles - the need for onboard high-pressure storage tanks and (like EVs) a lack of refuelling infrastructure - both the Mercedes and Honda take less than five minutes to fill up compared with the hours it takes to recharge an electric vehicle.

So the question remains: will the auto industry evolve logically from gasoline/diesel-fuelled cars to electric extended-range vehicles and from there, on to hydrogen fuel cells that, with development time and money equal to what is being poured into trendy EVs, offer a more practical alternative to fossil fuels? Or will we all drink the Kool-Aid, rally to the electric vehicle's illusion of pluperfect motoring and then find ourselves one day hunting down outlet "scalpers", skulking outside downtown parking lots, furtively offering quicker charging stations for but a modest (read exorbitant) surcharge?

And wondering how the heck it all went so wrong.

To mark Earth Week, The National directs its focus on the environment with Green Issues, highlighting the need for education and attention to the needs of our planet.