News that Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are only a year away from selling hydrogen-powered cars is generally reported with much excitement and little or no critical evaluation.
The emphasis is on the hydrogen, which can be turned into electricity with water vapor as the only byproduct. Sounds great, but between the lines lurk significant costs and roadblocks.
We recall how the electric-battery car a few years ago was billed as the automotive future. New inventions unproved in the marketplace, including the magical self-driving car, should not be allowed to distract us from practical solutions that are needed and possible right now: safer roads, better growth rules, more routes for bicycles and pedestrians, and better transit.
As for the hydrogen-powered car, we’re not there yet. Toyota has announced it will be selling them in 2015 for $50,000 to $100,000, and only in California, where enough hydrogen fueling stations are being built to make the venture possible.
Among the unasked questions is: Why would a consumer buy an expensive car that cannot now be refueled out of state? Why wouldn’t folks prefer, say, the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Eco, which is faster than the zero-to-60 acceleration in 10 seconds for the hydrogen car?
The unheralded gasoline Corolla gets 42 miles per gallon on the highway for a base price near $20,000.
Despite steady improvements in gasoline engines, California plans to spend $200 million on hydrogen stations. Here are two more questions. Will Florida and other states do the same as long as gasoline remains available and affordable? And why should they?
Already Florida has helped with hydrogen research. A few fueling stations were set up in Orange County and Seminole County as part of a larger study to find out how hydrogen-run vehicles would perform in daily service.
Last summer, the Department of Energy released the results of the entire seven-year, $350 million experiment. It found that 183 vehicles averaged 98 miles between fill-ups. The conclusion was that improvements in fuel-cell technology make the hydrogen car a commercial possibility. The cars seemed to hold up better than the compressors needed for the high-pressure refueling. The study did not go so far as to predict commercial success or say who would finance the fueling stations.
The hydrogen idea is not new. Popular Science magazine reported 30 years ago that research under way since the mid-1950s suggests hydrogen could be an economical alternative to the internal-combustion engine.
In 2003, then-President Bush made development of hydrogen fuel cells a national priority. The Hydrogen Fuel Initiative was to “make it practical and cost-effective for large numbers of Americans to choose to use clean, hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles by 2020.”
Incentives, if they’re large enough, do indeed work. And production prices can drop. The lease price of the all-electric Nissan Leaf is reported to be down to $199 per month, and Chevrolet has cut the base price of its Volt by $5,000.
Sales of electric cars have almost doubled, from nearly 53,000 in 2012 to nearly 96,000 last year. But with electricity costing the equivalent of about $1 per gallon, you have to wonder how low the prices must go before the cars appear on the road in numbers that would justify their tax and research subsidies.
It is understandable that politicians would look to science to invent wondrous solutions for energy costs, pollution and public mobility. Those issues are politically tough, and tax-subsidized research is certainly part of the answer.
A much bigger part is the political courage to attack today’s problems with proven solutions that have been available for many years.