How Ford’s Solar C-Max Compares to Fuel Cell Concepts

C-MAXSolarEnergi_09_HRAt the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, both Ford (NYSE:F) and Toyota (NYSE:TM) showed off their respective solutions to vehicle emissions and dependence on foreign-sourced petroleum. Ford has a promising concept with its solar-powered car, considering the Toyota fuel-cell vehicle depends on hydrogen stations becoming a part of the landscape — something that’s a stretch even in California, home to the most pro-environmental policy in the U.S.

Powering electric motors 

The debate over electric vehicles being favorable to gasoline-powered automobiles can sometimes fail to acknowledge the source of the power in question. U.S. Department of Energy studies indicate fossil-fuel electricity sources do not deliver significant savings in carbon emissions when compared to gas-powered cars. However, since electricity is derived from numerous sources in the United States, electric cars typically deliver lower emissions than traditional vehicles. Another aspect of the equation is the source of the energy.

Since the U.S. produces nearly its entire electricity supply on its own, the nation could avoid the trappings of imported oil by transitioning from gas to electric vehicles. Both the Toyota FCV and Ford C-Max Solar Energi concept provide solutions to powering electric motors in their respective vehicles.

Toyota FCV

Toyota FCV

Toyota’s fuel-cell vehicle runs on hydrogen stored in tanks on board the automobile, which provide a potential range over 300 miles. Refueling would involve filling the hydrogen tanks at stations in a process that takes less than five minutes. For battery-powered electrical vehicles that take thirty minutes to a full day to charge, the advantage of hydrogen is enormous. Yet delivering that fueling infrastructure in the near future is unlikely.

Range aside, solar has advantage 

The Ford C-Max Solar Concept delivers a solution that addresses the main problem with solar energy: the need for large swaths of panels to provide enough power for large machines. The automaker worked with Georgia Tech researchers to develop lenses that concentrate the impact of sunlight in small areas, which enables the panels on the C-Max Energi Solar Concept to power the vehicle for more than twenty miles.

Based on the average transportation habits of drivers, that twenty-one-mile range could represent three-quarters of trips car owners regularly make. A range-extending gas engine Ford plans to come standard in the C-Max would enable drivers to cover more than six hundred miles at the equivalent of over 100 mpg, since the vehicle is also a plug-in hybrid. Toyota’s car would deliver superior performance for long-distance drivers.

Toyota’s fuel-cell vehicle, which the automaker plans to debut in 2015, would instantly provide the range of the electric vehicle with the best-performance — the Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA) Model S. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk famously derided the possibility of fuel-cell vehicles ever making it on the same scale as battery-powered cars, but Toyota’s ambitious push forward has begun making the alternative fuel source seem plausible.

Aside from the lack of fueling stations, hydrogen cars would encounter issues with the fuel itself. Natural gas can be converted to hydrogen, but the current supply is not enough to power a significant number of cars in the U.S. The other big question is price. Toyota believes it can bring hydrogen cars to market that would compete with the pricey Model S.

In that respect, the Toyota FCV boasts the advantage of real-world readiness that the Ford solar concept cannot. Ford still can’t price its ambitious alternative-power vehicle.

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