Let’s get it out of the way. For an automobile to operate without the help of oil or coal, the only way to travel is in a battery-powered car charged exclusively with solar energy. That’s a “zero emissions” vehicle. Every other car in the electric vehicle and hybrid categories create emissions from the power generated by plants running on natural gas or coal, though the reduction in emissions is significant. At the end of the day, the EV industry has a promising future ahead with “zero-tailpipe-emissions” cars.
The introduction of fuel cell vehicles complicates things. On the one hand, hydrogen fuel cells provide a much longer driving range than battery electric vehicles. Fuel cell vehicles also have the ability to change tanks and refuel in just a few minutes, rather than needing 30 minutes or more to charge. One big problem is the “well-to-wheel” process that currently invovles big emissions to make hydrogen available from natural gas. Julian Cox’s letter to the California Energy Commission, which circulated widely in May 2014, called into question the claimed emissions benefits of fuel cell vehicle manufacturers.
For now, it appears fuel cell vehicles will not present an improvement over battery electric vehicles or clean diesel cars. The U.S. Department of Energy recently announced it was investing $20 million to increase efficiency in the process of bringing usable hydrogen to the market, so it is anyone’s guess how this battle will play out. While it does, here are six cars that produce zero emissions on the road and are ready to shake up the auto industry in the coming year.
6. Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell
Hyundai took the concept of a gasoline-free vehicle and ran with it. In the Tucson Fuel Cell vehicle, Hyundai brings a small sport utililty vehicle to the table in limited leases in California at the cost of $499 per month (36 months). This SUV has a potential range of 265 miles and a top speed of 100 mph.
Obviously, Hyundai cannot market this car in higher volumes until the hydrogen fueling infrastructure improves. There are only a few places in California that allow hydrogen car drivers to change tanks. Electric cars had to start somewhere, too, so automakers investing in fuel cells have time to make the economic and environmental factors work.
5. Volkswagen e-Golf
Volkswagen never produced an all-electric car before the e-Golf, so this entry from the world’s No. 2 automaker is especially noteworthy. Its top-end electric range of 115 miles would make it second best of any EV on U.S. roads. The electric VW can produce a maximum 200 pounds-feet of torque. Add in a projected price of $35,000 before federal rebates, and there will likely be a big audience for the e-Golf when it arrives in late 2014.
Volkswagen is also testing power of its service contracts and promised electric range with the e-Golf. Drivers who lose charge after a trip shorter than 100 miles will be eligible for free roadside assistance from VW to restore the car’s power at the nearest charging station.
4. Mercedes B-Class F-CELL
Mercedes Benz knows when to call in the star power. The automaker enlisted Jon Hamm to pitch its new supercar in April, and it has actress Diane Kruger appearing in press release photos for its fuel cell vehicle, the B-Class F-CELL. The automaker claims 190 miles of range and 134 horsepower for the F-CELL, which will be joined by the all-electric model in the B-Class.
Two pilot leasing programs are beginning in San Francisco and Los Angeles. Kruger, known for her work in Inglourious Basterds and The Bridge, apparently fuels up in Malibu.
3. Kia Soul
Kia has made noise in U.S. markets with the midsize Optima and new K900, but it is making a potentially disruptive move with the release of its Soul EV, expected in late 2014. The Soul EV claims an electric range of 92 miles, which would slot it in the top five in electric range among U.S. cars.
Production of the Soul EV began in mid-June 2014. What’s notable besides the range is the car’s ability to charge to 80 percent power in just 30 minutes, courtesy of a higher energy density in its battery, according to Clean Technica. Decent range and quick charging times give the Soul EV the ability to disrupt the industry at a low or even mid-range MSRP.
2. Mercedes B-Class Electric Drive
Why choose between lithium-ion battery cars and fuel cell cars when there is the option to make both? Mercedes Benz has taken the “everything but the kitchen sink” approach to gasoline-free cars. By the time anyone manages to pronounce the full name of this one, it will be clear this model is the plug-in electric vehicle of the bunch. It has an electric range of 85 miles and the power of 250 lb-ft of torque to give drivers that Mercedes feel.
The B-Class electric also has a competitive sticker price (and more trunk space) that will allow consumers to pass on the funky BMW i3 if they like. U.S. consumers can now start configuring a B-Class online, making it only a matter of time before it is whizzing by on local roads.
1. Tesla Model X
There is no questioning both the enduring appeal of utility vehicles and the wild popularity of Tesla electric vehicles. Put the two together, and it figures the Model X will have a titanic 2015 debut. Leave it to Tesla to create a crossover than can accelerate from 0-60 in under 5 seconds — and one with falcon wings for easy access to the car’s three rows of seating.
Tesla recently confirmed it will begin production of the Model X in 2015. The first several months of production are likely already reserved, so new reservations would be filled later next year. This upcoming release has tremendous potential to increase the power of Tesla and the electric vehicle industry as a whole.