Hydrogen fuel cell v. electric cars: What the industry might look like when California bans new gas cars

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A Hyundai Tucson hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle is filled at the pump by Derek Joyce in Newport Beach, California June 9, 2014. Photo by Alex Gallardo/Reuters

With California banning the sale of new gas cars starting in 2035, drivers will have to seek alternatives. The two main options are electric vehicles (EVs) and hydrogen fuel cell cars. Each has its pros and cons.

Manufacturers including Toyota, Hyundai and Honda have their own versions of the hydrogen car. And Tod Mesirow, who closely follows the car and tech industries, says that while hydrogen cars may not be at the front of the conversation, they are not dead. 

“The biggest advantage of hydrogen is that burning it is super clean,” says Mesirow. “There are zero tailpipe emissions from a fuel cell vehicle.”

However, one major challenge for fuel cell cars is the scarcity of hydrogen re-filling stations across California. There are only 44, according to Mesirow. Meanwhile, 1000 fuel cell cars are registered in the state. 

Although registered EVs outnumber fuel cell cars in California, Mesirow says they still only make up about 1% of all registered passenger vehicles.

Most EV owners say they’ll never go back to gas though, he adds. 

“I think the biggest hurdle to just overcome is to get people into an electric car, and then they seem to love them.”

The higher price of electric vehicles can be a barrier to entry for people considering moving away from gas cars. Mesirow says that if people can afford one or if the government can subsidize them, electric cars will likely be far more reliable.

“Electric cars are really dependable. And the upkeep and maintenance costs of electric cars versus internal combustion cars is much much lower for electric cars, so once you’re in an electric car, you’re saving money.”

Car companies are ramping up production of electric vehicles, including General Motors, who had a memorable Super Bowl commercial starring actor Will Ferrell about its commitment to electric cars, pledging to introduce 20 new EVs in the coming years, starting with a Hummer

And Mesirow says self-driving cars could also be a game changer — if and when people resume their regular work commutes.

“I think most people at that point, if it was available, would probably prefer to let a robot drive so they can stream something on their phone or make a TikTok going to and from work.”

But Mesirow says diehard gas car drivers will always exist, and come 2035, they’ll have to go out of state for their new vehicle purchases.

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