Hydrogen or Electric Cars? – The Future of the Automotive Industry12 min read

Hydrogen or Electric Cars? – The Future of the Automotive Industry12 min read

28/07/2018 1 By Vasyl Tsyktor

While most people have no doubt that alternative fuel vehicles will replace gasoline and diesel engines in the close future, scientists still argue whether electric or hydrogen cars will form the future of the automotive industry in the next decade. 


With CO2 emission standards getting stricter, car manufacturers turn toward either alternative fuels, using advanced technologies like exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), or even counterfeiting their metrics with specific software. Since the latter option can lead to an imprisonment as in the case of Volkswagen, both hydrogen and electric cars seem to be a suitable way to be compliant with the EU’s CO2 emission policy. The question is, which of the car types will dominate the market? This is a research of fuel cell and battery electric vehicles compared.

Working principle

While Volvo plans to focus solely on electric cars in a year, KIA strives to become a global leader in the fuel cell vehicle (FCEV) manufacturing. Why do these automakers prefer different approaches? Elon Musk, a founder of Tesla, is not a fan of hydrogen engines. He calls fuel cells “fool cells” and refers to a higher electricity loss of FCEVs compared to simply using electricity to charge batteries as in the case of electric cars. However, such car manufacturers like Honda, Toyota, and Hyundai still work on their FCEV technologies. To better understand the advantages and disadvantages of electric and hydrogen engines, we should first learn how each type of motors works.

How do hydrogen cars work?

Fuel cells combine characteristics of traditional internal combustion (ICE) and electric engines. Like an ICE, hydrogen engines generate power from fuel. However, FCEVs rely on the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen rather than on burning fuel in cylinders. The reaction 2H2+O2=H2O results in the release of pure water as an emission, unlike CO2 in ICE-powered vehicles, and electricity that further powers an electric motor. To run, FCEVs use hydrogen from their tanks and oxygen from the atmosphere. Unlike engines based on Li-ion batteries, fuel cells never run flat. They keep generating electricity until a tank gets empty rather than continuously deplete the chemicals in batteries.


How a hydrogen engine works:

  1. Hydrogen (H2) gas moves from the tank to the positive terminal via a pipe from the tank (shown here as big brown blobs). The tank has to be reliable enough to avoid the hydrogen explosion.
  2. Oxygen (O2) from the air (big turquoise blobs) moves to the negative terminal.
  3. As a catalyst made of platinum, the negative terminal (anode) (red) speeds up the chemical reaction of hydrogen atoms splitting up into positively charged particles called protons and negatively charged electrons.
  4. The electrons travel towards the positive terminal (cathode) through the electrolyte (yellow) since negative particles attract positive ones.
  5. The chemical reaction of H2 and O2 happens in the cathode.
  6. Electricity released from this reaction powers the electric motor (orange and black).
  7. The protons travel to the cathode via an alternate route. Then they recombine with oxygen to get turned into water.
  8. The water moves out via an exhaust pipe in the form of the water vapor or steam.

How do electric cars work?

Unlike ICEs, electric engines receive power from rechargeable Li-ion batteries installed in the car mostly under the seats. Besides powering an engine, the energy from batteries makes possible all the vehicle’s electronics and electrics to function. For instance, lights and wipers use the electricity from these batteries while ICE-based cars use a particular battery to power these systems.


Three basic components make possible electric cars to run. They are:

  • a battery,
  • electric motor,
  • and controller.

How an electric engine works:

  1. A driver switches on the car.
  2. The battery transmits the current to the controller.
  3. The controller receives the electricity.
  4. The controller converts the direct current of 300 volts into the alternating current of about 240V consumable for electric motors.
  5. The controller transmits the two-phase electric power to the electric motor.
  6. The motor converts the power into the mechanical energy.


This mechanical energy is what enables a car to run. To run faster, a car has to “tell” a controller how much power it should deliver. For this purpose, electric cars have variable potentiometers connected to the controller and accelerator. When a driver presses an accelerator pedal, potentiometers receive information from the pedal how much electricity the car needs to run that faster and transmits this data to the controller. The harder a driver presses an accelerator, the more power a controller delivers to the electric motor.


As of now, electric cars are much more popular than fuel cell vehicles. A market research agency Statista reports that nearly 200,000 electric vehicles were sold in the U.S in 2017 compared to only 6,000 FCEVs sold worldwide since their launch according to Information Trends. One way or another, both electric and hydrogen vehicles have their pros and cons. In the next paragraphs, we will consider benefits cars based on a fuel cell versus battery.


fuek cell vehicle Toyota Mirai

Both electric and hydrogen cars produce zero CO2 emissions which make them eco-friendly. However, their true negative impact lies in how plants produce these types of fuel.

Hydrogen can be produced in a wide range of ways but the basic methods are the following:

  • steam reforming
  • using water (electrolysis, radiolysis, thermolysis, etc.)
  • using fossil fuels

The thing is that both hydrogen and electricity can be obtained in an eco-friendly way such as using renewable sources and electrolysis of water. Unfortunately, only 4% of the overall hydrogen volume is produced through electrolysis while the rest is obtained from burning oil, gas, and coal. That’s why Shell decided to build an electrolysis plant. They strive to reach 80% of their hydrogen to be green. When it comes to electricity production, the situation is pretty similar. 67% of the electricity is obtained from burning peat, coal, oil, and gas. All these methods lead to CO2 emissions.


Furthermore, modern technologies of manufacturing batteries are far from being eco-friendly. Manufacturing an electric car contributes twice as much to the global warming problem and requires twice more energy than manufacturing an ICE-powered vehicle.


That’s why both FCEVs and electric cars are supposed to become eco-friendly once they get on the road. Not exactly. Scottish researchers from the University of Edinburgh found that moving electric cars leads to the release of a much larger number of hard particles into the environment compared to ICE-powered cars. These particles are more dangerous than CO2 emissions and include pieces of tires and bitumen from the road.


The reason for that is in the weight of electric cars. They are 24% heavier than traditional cars according to the automotive website Jalopnik. For example, Tesla Model S weights 2100 kg compared to the same class BMW 7-Series with its 1700 kg. On the other hand, Hyundai Nexo based on fuel cells weights over 1300 kg while similar ICE-powered Kia Sportage weights more than 1400 kg.


Therefore, since electric vehicles (EVs) have heavier batteries than cars based on fuel cells, FCEVs are more eco-friendly than EVs.

Fuel efficiency

Traditional internal combustion engines have the thermodynamic efficiency of 20-25% while the hydrogen fuel cell efficiency is 60% compared to, on average, 75% when it comes to electric vehicles.


Fueling is one of the major benefits of vehicles based on fuel cells over electric cars. Fueling a hydrogen car is pretty similar to fueling an ICE-powered car. At least, the overall process takes a couple of minutes in both cases, unlike EVs. Even though there are superchargers able to charge car batteries by 80% for 20 minutes, it’s still a too long process. For example, to fully charge Tesla Model S using the home socket, you will need about 9.5 hours.

Cost of fuel

The cost of electricity is one of the major advantages of electric cars. U.S. citizens pay, on average, $0.12 for 1 kilowatt per hour. Thus, to charge Tesla Model 3, you need to pay only around $10 for the distance of more than 300 miles.

On the other hand, hydrogen costs about $4.50 per kg. It’s a few times more than traditional petrol. However, Toyota Mirai burns around 1 kg per 60 miles (100 km). Taking into account the fuel efficiency of the FCEVs, fueling a hydrogen car costs less than fueling a vehicle based on the internal combustion engine but still more than electricity for EVs.

Cost of cars

Both electric and hydro fuel cell cars are more expensive than their ICE-powered analogs. For example, Volkswagen Golf cost from $20,000 across the U.S. while the pricing of the electric e-Golf starts from $30,000. On the other hand, Hyundai Nexo costs $64,000 while the price of ICE-powered Kia Sportage starts from $22,000. However, according to CNET, the Nexo’s prices can drop to around $31,000 after government subsidies.  


The reason why fuel cell vehicles are that expensive lies in the cost of technology. Dr. Sae-Hoon Kim, a chief of the Hyundai/Kia research and development (R&D), states that the companies have been working on reducing the FCEV technology cost. He also added that the costs would significantly decrease and be competitive to the traditional car pricing once the technology will become widely adopted.


Despite many countries like China and Japan support the development of the green transport and subsidy buying eco-friendly vehicles, the cost of both electric and hydrogen cars is still high, even though EVs are more affordable than FCEVs.


Tesla Semi electric truck

A range is the only valuable factor where electric cars are worse than traditional vehicles with internal combustion engines, unlike fuel cell vehicles that can overcome nearly the same distances as ICE-powered cars can. For example, Hyundai Nexo has a range of about 500 miles while Tesla model S 90d has a range of only 320 miles. It’s worth noting that the latter car is twice as expensive as Nexo.


With this benefit of FCEVs in mind, governments and companies adopt heavy fuel cell vehicles like buses and trains. For example, the German government has allowed the commercial use of the Coradia iLint trains based on hydrogen. Polish PKP Cargo and JSW, a coal company, have partnered to develop innovative solutions aimed at reducing energy consumption and environmental impact through the use of the hydrogen fuel. In South Korea, fuel cell buses transport passengers.


While electric vehicles are mostly compact city and sports cars regardless Elon Musk has recently presented his truck Tesla Semi with a range of only 300 and 500 miles for different models, hydrogen has the potential to become the basic type of fuel for vans, SUVs, trucks, and fleet vehicles.


When it comes to the fuel cell vs battery safety, those, who say that fuel cell cars are dangerous, often refer to the Hindenburg disaster happened in 1937. Fueled with hydrogen, the Hindenburg airship caught fire which led to deaths of 36 people. In fact, flammable H2 is less dangerous than gasoline. 17 ICE-powered cars catch fire every hour across the U.S. When it comes to electric cars, they’re also safer than traditional vehicles since they don’t use fossil fuel. Even though there are cases where Tesla catches fire, it hardly says something negative about the safety of electric vehicles. Both EVs and FCEVs ensure a high level of safety for a driver and passengers.


Electric cars have few moving parts compared to conventional vehicles that’s why they rarely need repairing apart from suspension, wheels, and brakes – the same as fuel cell cars. However, batteries are expensive and they have one significant drawback: over time, they lose their capacity. For instance, Nissan Leaf’s battery loses 20% of its capacity over 5 years. Furthermore, electric engines are less efficient in cold weather. They use more much energy when the temperature decreases under zero while the cold weather affects neither performance nor range of FCEVs.  


BMW i8 rear lights

One of the main reasons why electric cars are more popular than fuel cell vehicles lies in the infrastructure of fueling stations as well as a capability to charge a car battery by connecting to the home socket. In the case of an FCEV, you can’t just insert a pipe from your bath into Mirai’s tank.


Statista reports that there are about 62,000 electric vehicle charging stations and outlets across the U.S compared to only 39 publically available hydrogen fueling stations as of January 2018, according to the US Department of Energy. Only with the expanding infrastructure of hydrogen fueling stations, FCEVs can compete with electric cars.

Fuel cell vs battery cars

Metric/Type of a car Eco-friendliness Fuel efficiency Fueling Cost of fuel Cost of cars Range Safety Reliability Infrastructure
Electric cars 75% 8-10 hours $0.12/1 kWh ≈500 ml 62,000 chargers
Hydrogen cars 60% 3 min $4.50/1 kg ≈300 ml 39 stations

Toyota leads the market of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles with their over 3,000 Toyota Mirai cars sold since 2015. This is nearly 50% of all FCEV sales. However, fuel cell cars will hardly compete with electric vehicles in the next five years. The lack of fueling stations and high cost discourage drivers to buy hydrogen cars. Owning Honda Clarity currently means that you can drive only a few specific routes while with Tesla, you just need to calculate your miles to reach the next available charger or home socket.


Neither FCEVs nor EVs are a perfect choice since both car types have their benefits and drawbacks. However, access to cheap electricity from the home is one of the major factors why clients prefer EVs over hydrogen cars. According to Forbes, Renault-Nissan is the world’s leading automaker of electric vehicles. In the first quarter of 2017, they sold almost 37,000 EV’s with 15,742 Nissan Leaf’s purchased by consumers compared to 13,450 Tesla Model S cars sold within the same period.


Electric cars won’t be able to fully replace FCEVs from the market since the reliability, range, and fueling advantages of hydrogen vehicles can’t be ignored. Fuel cell vehicles will fulfill their niche of cars aimed at long distances while electric vehicles will remain popular as a means of compact everyday city and sports cars.