Hydrogen cars: miracle or mirage?

Car makers have been experimenting with hydrogen-fueled cars since the sixties. Some brands offer pioneering models in their line-up, and slowly a modest network of fueling stations is being rolled out. Has the turning point for hydrogen finally arrived? Will it prove to be a true contender for battery-powered drivelines? Let’s have a look at how much tailwind there is for cars that only emit water.

There hasn’t been an energy solution so promising and underperforming at the same time as hydrogen. In 1874, French author Jules Verne called it the coal of the future, and today European Commissioner Frans Timmermans says it’s a “rockstar”. But the CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, has been quoted naming it “the dumbest fuel around”. Whoever’s right is difficult to say. But while hydrogen failed to live up to its expectations in the past, a new dawn has definitely broken. Is that also true for its application in cars?

Most hydrogen cars use a fuel cell - abbreviated to FCEVs or fuel cell electric vehicles. These are technological marvels. Liquid hydrogen stored in tanks passes through the fuel cell, where it combines with oxygen. This produces electricity that drives an electric motor. There are no CO2 emissions during the process, and the only by-product seeping from underneath the car is... water.

So far, so good. The difficulty lies in producing that hydrogen. Ideally, it is made by electrocuting water, which subsequently splits into two chemical elements: hydrogen and oxygen. Using electricity from renewables, this method called green hydrogen is immaculate. But it's also very expensive. Five times more so than the hydrogen derived from natural gas, the industry's most common method. Because of the significant electricity losses (more than 60%), producing green hydrogen at a wider scale poses enormous hurdles. And, as with battery cars, if the source isn't green, neither is the usage in a car afterwards.

Like it used to be

The nice thing is that fuel-cell cars mimic mobility as we’ve known it for decades. You pull over at a station, fill up for about five minutes, and so you’re ready to travel for at least 500 kilometers - only this time without any ecological footprint. As said, there’s no CO2 and no toxic emissions from the driveline. There’s no need to install a new charging network either, like for a battery-powered vehicle. Instead, a hydrogen fuel station can be integrated into a regular one, as DATS24 already demonstrated with the stations it built in Belgium.

But while the overlap is good in theory, the infrastructure is currently still poor. Nonetheless, the backing has been put in place. Several European countries are running investment plans in national hydrogen strategies (in most cases around 8 billion euros), which should take effect over the coming years. Also, at higher levels, European MEPs have adopted a draft for a network to make hydrogen refueling possible every 100 kilometers across the continent. A future looms.

Ambitious countries aren’t waiting on the sidelines, either. As a forerunner, Germany counts nearly 100 hydrogen fueling stations, almost ten times more than the number two on the list, Switzerland (12 stations). Belgium isn’t lagging. Five stations are operational already, with the majority providing green hydrogen. This growing infrastructure is essential in solving the chicken or egg dilemma. While the first hydrogen vehicle (the GM Electrovan) already dates from 1966, the shortage of fuel forecourts has always quenched commercial viability and product development. Which, in its turn, put off energy companies. An endless cycle.

Early adopters and startups

But now, some car makers are spotting a change in scenery. Asian brands have especially profiled themselves as early adopters. With the Mirai and the Nexo, both Toyota and Hyundai have a second-generation hydrogen model in their line-up. Toyota even went the extra mile. It has announced that it will adapt combustion engines for running on gaseous hydrogen - this is very much like burning natural gas in a petrol engine - to support racing and mobility needs in countries unsuited for electrification.

Over in Europe, BMW, which marketed a 7 Series with a V12 on hydrogen in the mid-noughties, will take an X5 with a fuel cell to market in 2023. Stimulated by the extensive German network, ofcourse, as by its partnership with Toyota. Audi was working on an E-Tron running on hydrogen, using a fuel cell under license from Hyundai, but the project got scrapped to focus entirely on battery technology. Same for the car department at Mercedes. On the other side, new brands in startup style emerge. Over in France, Hopium hopes to become the Tesla of hydrogen and is placing its bets on a high-end sedan.

Hydrogen as a fuel carrier stands a better chance in heavy-duty transportation than passenger cars.

As the debate about the feasibility of hydrogen continues, everybody agrees on one logic. If it's going to become a thing in transportation, then first in highliner cars and heavy-duty transport, from where it can trickle down to smaller vehicles as technology and hydrogen costs diminish. Today, there’s no salvation there. Fuel cells aren’t free from precious metals and they don’t come cheap. Just as the first battery-powered vehicles, hydrogen cars aren’t ready as an affordable mass product. And in contrast to cheap domestic electricity (the current crisis notwithstanding), hydrogen suffers from higher tariffs. It’s as costly as fast-charging. Despite being freed from excise duties, prices hoover around 10 euros per kilo, translating into a refill of roughly 60 euros.

The long way around

On the other hand, fuel cell cars could be a handy solution for city dwellers who face the difficulty of installing wall boxes for battery-powered cars. But other jammers are spoiling the party. The previously named substantial losses is an important one. Where a battery car presents a well-to-wheel efficiency of 77%, a fuel cell car reaches 35% at best. That’s not great. The principle of using electricity to make hydrogen (with considerable losses) that subsequently fabricates electricity for propulsion in the vehicle is nothing short of the long way round compared to producing renewable electricity and charging that directly in a car's battery pack. That’s why Elon Musk calls it “dumb”.

Energy agencies, academics and councils worldwide seem to agree that fuel cells stand the best chance for a breakthrough in the truck (and maritime and aviation) sector, where long charging times weigh in on costly downtime, and big battery packs bring an unfavorable weight penalty. But also in the truck class, hydrogen propulsion is developed as a smaller-scale alternative, not a substitute, for battery power. The automotive industry bets on upcoming battery cell technology with lightning-fast charging capacity and better range for less weight. That could hamper the broader adoption of hydrogen.


Hydrogen is a long-standing and proven technology. It certainly has its role to play in decarbonizing our transportation and mobility of the future. However, for passenger cars it won’t grow into the dominant energy carrier. Its low efficiency, the advantages of direct electrification and the future reduction of charging times in battery-powered cars will prevent it from doing so. But as a clean power form for heavy-duty trucks, ships and airplanes an undeniable potential lures around the corner.

Geoffrey Heyninck,

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