Asymcar 16: Do the Numbers Add Up? Fuel Cells vs Batteries

If Gasoline goes much higher

Steve Crandall joins us to discuss hydrogen fuel cells vs. lithium batteries. The two alternatives to post-internal-combustion motoring are far harder to assess than it might seem. Both require systems analysis and the systems themselves need to be weighed against the incumbent infrastructure and jobs to be done.

We begin with Toyota’s fuel cell sedan announcement and recall Honda’s Clarity. The conversation leads to the observation that technical merit is not always sufficient or even necessary to market adoption success. We note that Toyota supported the Prius through years of low volume. Steve compares this to AT&T’s abandonment of a cell service in the 1990’s.

Steve compares the energy performance of hydrogen and gasoline and shares a look at the economic conditions necessary for a successful hydrogen fuel cell launch.

28mb mp3 about 58 minutes.

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Steve Crandall:

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United States Department of Energy Study: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles Advancing Rapidly Fuel Cell Technologies Office United States Hydrogen Policy

Walkable City Book

Top Gear: Honda Clarity Honda’s website How the Clarity FCEV works

Toyota Fuel Cell Sedan Toyota Japan

Tailpipe emissions

Sustainable Energy

Fuel cell expert says Tesla is promising more than it can deliver

  • michael

    “Why are incumbents not aggressively pursuing EV core technologies?”

    Hypothesis: they are allowing Tesla to run the EV mass market experiment so they save the expense that could be lost if the experiment fails. If Tesla succeeds in delivering the high volume third generation car, incumbents could respond quickly since they have manufacturing scale that Tesla does not.

  • Oliver Bruce

    Great discussion.

    A few things:

    1) You’re right to ask why the smartest guys in the room are going with hydrogen, especially given the long and sorry past of its development and the technical challenges with storing and transporting it. I still don’t get it, but your points about it sustaining the incumbent business model is a very fair point – it would appear the business models in place for energy supply, distribution, maintenance facilities etc. could reasonably adapt to a hydrogen fueling and distribution model. With EV’s there is far less value capture over the life of the vehicle and it isn’t with the same players (fuelling expenses go to electricity providers, less maintenance etc.)

    2) Utility scale storage for renewables is a tough nut to crack and not something that will necessarily correlate with what eventuates as the predominant energy storage unit for automobiles. Compressed air/pumped hydro looks promising, as do some of the larger grid battery projects (Ambri etc.), but these are not viable automobile energy storage mediums. Tom Murphy, an associate professor of physics at UCSD and all around kickass dude, wrote a great essay on the challenges of grid sized storage here:

    Overall though, I’m still wondering why Asymcar hasn’t been looking at why we use cars like we do in the first place – ie. asking what is the ‘job to be done’ of an automobile? These discussions about drivetrain technology are great and interesting (and get my inner geek excited about energy density of storage mediums), but they’re in many ways too limited, and blind us to the innovation that is happening around how we use the cars themselves rather than their production, distribution and fuelling.

    My generation (I’m 27) are not really interested in the physical thing, just the mobility it offers. Uber has recently opened in my city and if they had a guaranteed ‘5 mins to your door’ service at a reasonable cost, I’d be far more inclined to use it than my car because it solves issues with parking / time wasted driving etc. It’s an asymmetric response to traditional automobile business models of providing mobility.

    It goes back to The Transportationist David Levinson’s point about the layers of change you can make to transportation infrastructure from expensive physical changes through to signalling – Zipcar/Uber/Lyft/Google autonomous cars etc. have software that enables a radically different utilisation of the same assets while providing comparable or higher levels of mobility.

    I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this.

    • Horace Dediu

      I think we spent quite some time on the show discussing the job to be done of automobiles. In fact the first show starts with that topic.

      See also Asymcar 6:

      and Asymcar 5:

      • Oliver Bruce

        Hi Horace,

        Right you are, and a good excuse to go back and review those earlier shows. Not incidentally, I think those (and Asymcar 7) were your best shows yet and were definitely getting at what I’m talking about.

        Still, I’d humbly suggest it warrants more discussion, and I’d love to see a show in which you discuss the impacts of Uber/ridesharing/Blabla car and others that utilise better IT/ smartphones to provide more mobility from the same system assets.

        It’d also be great to do a segment on developing world megacities and the role of the car in these especially because, as you note from your travels, they simply cannot replicate the same model used in the ‘West’. The WRI Embarq Project and The Atlantic CityLab both have great people working on this and are supporting entrepreneurs working in this space who could make for good interviews.

        Also, I really think you’d get a lot out of interviewing Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar and Buzzcar. She’s a real transportation visionary and she’s talking about a lot of the same things you are.

        Thanks, and keep it up. It really is a great show and I’m very thankful for the time and effort you guys put in to do it.