What 2020 Would Look Like If Automakers Had Seriously Invested In Hydrogen

The 2020 Hyundai Nexo
Photo: Hyundai

As we head into 2020, the number of hydrogen cars available to the public is still dreadfully low. There are less than a handful of them and existing infrastructure is woefully behind anything that would sustain any realistic, widespread usage. But had automakers invested in hydrogen cars with the same gusto they did battery-electric vehicles, we’d have a solution to a lot of issues people have with BEV cars today.

(As 2019 rounds out and we near the start of a new decade, Jalopnik imagines what the next year could bring... if the past decade had gone as we hoped it would.) 

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If you want a hydrogen car, your three options today are the Hyundai Nexo, the Toyota Mirai or the Honda Clarity Fuel Cell. They’re available only in California and Hawaii, which is also where the publicly accessible hydrogen filling stations are located. And even so, there are only about 40 in California.

Screenshot: Alternative Fuels Data Center (U.S. Department of Energy)

During a recent Hyundai RM19 drive, I got a go in a Nexo around the oval track at Hyundai’s California Proving Ground. The ever-helpful PR team stuck one of Hyundai’s hydrogen engineers in the front seat with me, so we got to chatting about the car and existing infrastructure.

He revealed that it costs the state of California between $1.5 and $2 million to build a hydrogen filling station. And the bottleneck of hydrogen sales really comes down to the availability of these stations.

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I asked the engineer how long it takes to fill up a hydrogen car. “Probably about five minutes,” he shrugged. “It’s like filling up at a normal gas station.”

The Nexo I drove had a manufacturer-estimated range of 380 miles. Which is impressive! Sure, it could have used a little more horsepower than its present 161 peak HP output, but otherwise it was very pleasant to drive. Quiet, comfortable and stylish, it was a car I could absolutely see a green-thinking customer take home.

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The 2021 Toyota Mirai
Photo: Toyota

In many ways, hydrogen cars offer solutions to existing problems people have with BEVs. Range is one of them. People get really hung up on range figures when it comes to BEVs. Just this month, we wrote about Audi juicing up the disappointing range on its E-Tron SUV and the Porsche Taycan’s poor EPA range estimate. People are obsessed with range, and hydrogen cars have displayed impressive range figures already—much higher than their BEV counterparts.

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BEVs are the darlings of clean driving today. They are where nearly every automaker is throwing cash. But if, say, 10 years ago, automakers seriously took it upon themselves to invest in hydrogen—built up a dedicated hydrogen filling infrastructure as Tesla did, pushed aggressively for public and governmental support and created good cars that people actually wanted to drive—then we’d have a serious, emissions-free alternative to BEVs by now.

Hydrogen cars actually make more logical sense, since filling them up involves a process we’re all familiar with already. You go to a station, put in some money, pump and wait five minutes while your car fills up. Plus, they run on the most abundant element in the universe and produce no pollution.

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The 2019 Honda Clarify Fuel Cell
Photo: Honda

There isn’t any of this charge-at-home business, which means folks living in urban areas without access to a garage wall socket can get in on the action, too. You wouldn’t get charging station pileups as we recently observed at one California station because BEVs currently take a while to charge.

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If serious investments happened, and not mere reliance on government action, we might be halfway to building an extensive and usable hydrogen infrastructure system. We’d have more than just three automakers offering hydrogen cars. And the cars offered might even be more powerful and have improved ranges by now.

Emissions-free driving is still young. But BEVs are currently much further along than their hydrogen fuel cell brethren. Toyota’s keeping it at, though. Even so, there’s a lot of catching up to do, if hydrogen ever catches up at all.

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About the author

Kristen Lee

Writer at Jalopnik and consumer of many noodles.