Tesla Motors (NASDAQ:TSLA) CEO Elon Musk knows how to get his point across when things make him unhappy. For example, Musk’s take on hydrogen fuel cells: When asked by a reporter what his opinion was, Musk said fuel cells were “so bullshit,” a verbal spear aimed at Honda (NYSE:HMC) and Toyota (NYSE:TM), both of which have sunk sizable amounts of money into developing the technologies.
It’s taken some time, but Toyota’s Bob Carter, the company’s senior vice president for automative operations, is throwing the ball back in Musk’s court. It’s no secret that Toyota has ambitious plans to put a mass-market fuel cell vehicle on American roads by next year and build the needed infrastructure to support a population of hydrogen-powered cars.
“Personally I don’t really care what Elon and [Nissan CEO] Carlos [Ghosn] and [Volkswagen’s] Jonathan [Browning] have to say about fuel cells. It’s very reminiscent of 1998, 1999 when we first introduced the Prius,” Carter said at a conference held at the Detroit auto show, per Reuters. It’s a fair point. The Prius is the world’s best-selling hybrid, and Carter believes the hydrogen car could see similar fame.
However, the Prius didn’t require a nationwide network of new fueling stations in order to become viable. Nonetheless, hydrogen is Toyota’s weapon of choice. Tesla, Nissan (NSANY.PK), and Volkswagen (VLKAY.PK) have all opted to pursue greater investment in plug-in electric vehicles like the Model S, the Leaf, and the e-Golf, respectively.
VW’s Browning said in November that it was easier for consumers to locate an outlet than a hydrogen station. It’s pretty hard to argue that statement currently, but Toyota is planning to build its own network of hydrogen stations to support its new fleet, much like Tesla is building Superchargers to fuel the fleet of Model S vehicles on the road.
Carter maintains that the hydrogen car will meet a similar legacy as the Prius has as Toyota continues to build its support network around the car. ”Ten years from now, I have a hunch our fuel cell vehicle will be viewed in similar terms. We truly believe it has the same potential as the first Prius,” Reuters reports Carter as saying. Toyota has sold almost 6 million Prius vehicles since the car was released.
So what of the early fueling issues before the broad nationwide rollout? “By placing stations in better locations, Carter estimated that if all cars in California [Toyota’s first target market] were running on hydrogen that the state’s fueling needs could be met with 15 percent of the nearly 10,000 gasoline stations currently in operation,” Reuters writes, adding that hydrogen cars offer a comparable range to conventional internal combustion vehicles, and unlike electric vehicles, they can refill in a matter of minutes.
However, it’s hard to ignore that there may just be room for both plug-in electrics and hydrogen fuel cell cars, as alternative powertrain vehicles have seen rapid growth and show no sign of slowing as the costs of the technology decline and performance increases. There are camps for each: a loyal following for hydrogen vehicles and for plug-ins. And while hydrogen might take some time to get its feet beneath it, the Prius incurred a sort of cultish following initially before gaining more widespread appeal.
It’s marketplace diversity that keeps things interesting. The production of consumer-grade hydrogen will likely provide a good opportunity for jobs, potentially American ones if the United States proves to be a large enough market. Advancements in electric vehicles and new fuels will require resources and people from all walks of life, and new industries are often beneficial to economic health. While Musk certainly is justified in sticking up for the technology that he has fully invested his company in, it’s arguable that the diversity of the green car movement is the most important factor.