All-electric fans unwisely attacking hydrogen fuel cell tech following explosion

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Updated Jul 8, 2019

We need an alt fuel BattleBots edition to take some of the edge off.

Seriously…just unwind…have a beer…and watch Elon Musk and Trevor Milton battle it out in a cage with robots.

But they can’t be powered by batteries or fuel cells because there’s way, way, way too much riding on that. They have to be Cox engines—buzzing away like a swarm of angry bees with robot arms swinging, grabbing, poking, jabbing while Styx’ Mr. Roboto jams followed by Tom Petty’s I won’t back down and lastly, for the irony of it all, America’s soulful, serene and introspective Tin Man plays while the robots scramble to rip out tiny hydraulic veins and the fuel line to that that tiny, iconic engine. And then everyone sort of pauses, save for the guy clinging to the cage wearing a Luddite Redux t-shirt, when they hear America’s late frontman Dan Peek sing, “So please, believe in me…”

It’s not hard to believe in technology. You can see the steps from cutting-edge, risky invention to proven mass market success.

But somewhere in-between is where it gets super interesting and cringy—the adolescence of emerging technology with its dedicated proponents clinging to and shaking the cage of R&D.

Sometimes—okay a lot of times—someone gets a little crazy on the cage a la Mad Max’ Thunderdome.

In this case it was all these EV bloggers claiming that the death knell for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles was coming following a recent explosion at a hydrogen station in Norway. While no one was directly hurt by the blast, shockwaves reportedly caused air bags to deploy in nearby cars and sent some folks to the hospital.

Doubtless, explosions do get headlines but I’ve yet to come across one where a fuel cell vehicle has erupted in a ball of fire and claimed the life of its occupants.

Nikola Two hydrogen fuel cell truck shown here in April at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif.Nikola Two hydrogen fuel cell truck shown here in April at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif.

There are, however, unsettling accounts of EVs catching on fire and in some cases even burning people to death. Granted, there are far more all-electric vehicles on the road than fuel cells, but these are incidents that cannot be ignored.

As all-electric powertrains make their way into larger commercial classes, we’ve reported on stories involving battery fires. We’ve also covered the challenges of battery recycling which poses environmental concerns.

Currently, only about half of an EV battery’s elements can be recycled while the rest is useless, toxic slag. Useless for now, but that may all change as science moves ever-forward.

And yes, hydrogen is not without its fiery and explosive risks, high prices and availability issues. Advanced technology—particularly when it’s housed in a multi-ton vehicle subjected to all sorts of troubling variables (extreme temperatures, rough roads, collisions)—presents plenty of risks.

But the current attacks on hydrogen from the EV community are short-sighted and do more harm than good for the electric powertrain industry as a whole which includes fuel cells.

As Milton pointed out recently at the Advanced Clean Transportation Expo in Long Beach, Calif., fuel cells and electric powertrains are fundamentally the same when it comes to propulsion—electric motors do the work of turning the wheels.

Milton, seeing the benefits of exploring both technologies, is working toward producing an all-electric semi in addition to his highly-publicized Nikola fuel cell rig.

Musk, in his characteristic, over-the-top carnie bravado, calls fuel cell technology ‘stupid.’ He also recently called lidar ‘stupid.’ Strange pronouncements coming from an automaker that leans heavily on government subsidies, or training wheels, to stay in business. He still can’t quite pedal on his own and yet here he is playing king of the hill.

I wonder what Musk thinks of the recent news out of China where he intends to manufacture EVs in the world’s largest car market. Wan Gang, the former Audi executive credited for leading the EV revolution in China said recently that the nation should step up fuel cell production, according to Bloomberg News. That’s big news coming from Gang who’s now involved in crafting policy for the nation that produces by far the most EVs in the world. Interestingly enough, Gang does not share Musk’s opinion that hydrogen technology is stupid.

While unreservedly condemning fuel cells and lidar, Musk is setting a cut-throat example that his fans are eager to adopt. Of course it’s nothing new for auto manufacturers to get scrappy and throw punches at each other, but I’m not so sure that such a small niche like the alternative fuels space will really benefit from such fireworks. Alt fuel proponents are all pursuing various technologies with the end-goal of lowering emissions. Looks like they’d all be better off in tapering their rhetoric as well.

Note: An earlier version of this blog incorrectly reported that Cox engines have spark plugs. They do not. They use glow plugs. A reader (see comments below) pointed out the error.