Batteries aren't the only way to power electric cars

Russ Heap picture

No matter how fervently the federal government  — or some state governments, for that matter — promote electric cars, they can't just decree the creation of cheaper, longer-range batteries.

Most of today's electric-propulsion vehicles (EVs) can travel only about 100 miles or so before they need to be recharged. That's not much farther than the first electric cars could go in the early years of the automobile.

Advancing battery technology is basic to extending range, and that's the real issue: The technology has been very slow in coming.

The reason battery-powered golf carts sell is because, when fully charged, they have proven they can carry two golfers and their clubs around an entire 18-hole course. That's not to say that a golfer has never been stranded somewhere on a course because of a golf cart failure of some sort, but a golfer's initial thought on the first tee isn't, “Boy, I sure hope this contraption has the juice to get me around the course.”

Why? Because electric golf carts have done just that for decades. Obviously, battery power has its place, but inexpensively transporting something or someone across great distances just isn't it — at least not yet.

I already hear some of you screaming, “What about Tesla!” In fact, my editor mentioned Tesla when I pitched the idea for this column.

Granted, with a base price of around $70,000, the Tesla Model S is certainly within the reach of many owners of near-luxury and luxury cars, such as Audi, Lexus, Cadillac and so forth. And this is before the thousands of dollars the federal government and some state governments kick in to get people to buy them. By this definition, let's call Tesla an affordable luxury car.


Tesla Model S

Here's the thing, even if I decided to pony up the 70 large for a Tesla, I still couldn't drive straight down I-26 from Spartanburg in upstate South Carolina to Charleston on the coast without overnighting in Columbia, or some other city on the way, to recharge the batteries.

Tesla's range is roughly 200 miles, and that's under ideal conditions: flat surfaces, no head wind and moderate temperatures. Decide to tour the Southwest in a Tesla on what might be a two-week vacation to see the Grand Canyon in a traditional gasoline-powered car, and you should set aside a couple of months.

“Range anxiety” is a real fear many people have about their batteries petering out, leaving them on the side of the road somewhere.

Carmakers, though, are full steam ahead developing and marketing EVs despite this major shortcoming. Strolling the exhibits at the recent Los Angeles Auto Show, visitors saw concept, as well as production EVs, in at least half the displays.

But Hyundai revealed something else to the public in LA that may signal a change in focus from short-range EVs to another alternative fuel that, at least in theory, makes a lot more sense: hydrogen fuel cells.


2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

Hyundai announced that it will bring a hydrogen-powered Tucson to showrooms this spring. The Korean automaker is already advertising a 3-year lease that includes fuel and maintenance for $499 a month, with $2,999 due at signing.

Availability will be limited to Southern California, where the industry trade magazine Automotive News reports 10 hydrogen-fueling stations are already in operation and another 19 under development.

In fact, the primary stumbling block to hydrogen-powered cars has always been the fueling-station issue. Someone, most likely oil companies and their franchisees, would have to install the tanks and delivery equipment to replenish hydrogen used in the cells.

Like EVs, fuel-cell systems also use an electric motor to turn the wheels, but it's the energy in a chemical reaction produced when hydrogen is mixed with oxygen inside the cells that powers the motor. Where batteries store energy, fuel cells produce it.

All that is left behind after the process is water vapor.

In addition to the lack of infrastructure, other factors such as contending with the extreme heat of the chemical reaction, as well as hydrogen-storage issues, have so far dampened the auto industry's enthusiasm for fuel cells.

Developing better, more affordable fuel cells will be expensive, but as the cost of electricity continues to rise and fuel-cell technology pushes forward, reducing its costs, more carmakers are bound to get on board the fuel-cell wagon.

According to Automotive News, Toyota and Honda will begin limited marketing of hydrogen-fueled models over the next 24 months. GM has had an experimental fleet of hydrogen-fueled Equinoxes on the road for years.

Although batteries are the darling of the government and the auto industry today, they may well just be a stopgap, short-term solution on the way to a more efficient system. That system could be hydrogen fuel cells.

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