Battle of the Electric Cars: ‘Hydrogen Sucks,’ Says Elon Musk

War of the Currents Redux: Fuel Cells vs. Batteries.

“It blows my mind that people would seriously consider hydrogen,” Elon Musk told me in an email when I asked him why he chose to power his Tesla cars with batteries instead of fuel cells. Is there a new War of the Currents shaping up between Musk and the other auto makers?

Toyota and BMW have formed an alliance to work on fuel cell cars, as reported recently on Science Friday.

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Automakers Drive Towards Hydrogen Cars

So have Daimler, Ford, and Nissan, with hopes of having vehicles on the road by 2017. These automakers believe that hydrogen fuel stations can be in place, and that there will be enough hydrogen-powered cars on the road to use them, all within four years. According to Jennifer Kurtz of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Technologies Program, you can now drive your fuel cell-powered car up to hydrogen “gas” stations in California, Hawaii, and a growing number of eastern states, fill ‘er up with liquid H2, and drive another 430 miles before a refill. Hydrogen is the future.

Yet, Elon Musk notes that, “except for the upper stage of a rocket, hydrogen makes no sense.” The Steve Jobs of the auto (Tesla) and space industries (SpaceX), Musk, whose battery-powered Tesla Model S won the 2013 Motor Trend Car of the Year award, wrote to me that hydrogen “does not occur naturally on Earth, so [it] is *not* itself an energy source. Energy is required to make hydrogen, and then even more energy is needed to compress it to very high pressures or liquefy it.

“Given that hydrogen is of such low density (#1, in fact!), [it] is extremely prone to combustion/explosion and is only liquid close to absolute zero, [and] it sucks as a candidate compared to almost any hydrocarbon fuel like methane (main element of natural gas) or ethanol.”

Musk appears to be smarting a bit from an unkind review of his car in The New York Times. Times reporter John M. Broder drove his Model S up into New England and reported that he had to be towed when the battery power gave out. Musk told CNBC that the article is “a bit of a setup” and “unreasonable.” He later tweeted: “Tesla blog coming soon detailing what actually happened on Broder’s NYTimes ‘range test’. Also lining up other journalists to do same drive.”

The history of technology is loaded with juicy tales of battles of titans. This kind of competition can only be healthy for the electric car industry. And this battle, being more personal than Apple vs Samsung, is akin to Edison vs. Westinghouse. And that one merely decided the future of electricity.

**UPDATE** Feb. 14, 2013  

In a scathing rebuke to The New York Times test drive, Elon Musk issued a point by point rebuttal to the review, showing data downloaded from the car’s onboard computer contradicted the reviewer’s version of how the test drive was conducted and claiming that the reviewer was out to sabotage any chance for a positive story. The Times’ Broder posted a detailed response.

**UPDATE** Feb. 19, 2013  

CNN takes the same drive, without incident and with miles to spare. In one long trip, single day.

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About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.