Enthusiasts for the internal combustion engine (ICE) and advocates of electric vehicles (EVs) probably agree on only one point: the case for hydrogen cars is weak.

There is the high cost of production, the lack of infrastructure, safety question marks and the relative inefficiencies in delivering hydrogen to customers just for starters. But these well-worn tropes were—and sometimes still are— aimed at EVs, which are beset by other ethical, geopolitical and practical issues that do not apply to green hydrogen.

This then begs the ultimate question: have we gone too far down the highway with EVs, and is there no turning back? Oil majors have been reluctant to fully commit to hydrogen and have even backtracked.

Will EVs end up being the VHS of car driving, the laser disc or something longer lasting than either?

Shell last year dropped plans for hydrogen in light mobility to focus on heavy-duty vehicles and industrial applications for its hydrogen business while continuing with EV charging plans. Other oil majors have also flip-flopped over EVs while also dabbling in e-fuels and hydrogen more as bold experiments that mass-scale solutions.

It could well be a sensible strategic move: understand alternative energies but do not fully commit until there is a strong economic case. Arguably, if the wherewithal, technological progress and policy push were there, there would have been significant headway made in hydrogen shipping, which is unlikely to ever run on batteries. But the fact oil companies continue to explore the tech outside EVs means breakthroughs could still be made in alternative greener solutions. After all, the case that EVs are cleaner than gasoline-run cars in terms of carbon emissions stands up only once both cars have been going for at least a decade, and that is without the element of dropping in e-fuels to the mix—hardly a glowing endorsement that EVs are the holy grail of clean passenger transportation and that options should not just be left open but genuinely explored.

The Trojan EV horse?

Will EVs end up being the VHS of car driving, the laser disc or something longer lasting than either? Certainly, there are those that believe BEVs will always be niche due to charging infrastructure, grid capacity constraints, and the reliance on low-voltage networks to facilitate widespread access to charging, especially as you move outside Europe and the US. Morality for the middle classes, perhaps.

There are then the huge supply-side risks around metals mining and especially copper costs and the concentration of metals in fewer hands with countries that have huge political problems—ones that make OPEC look like a fluffy all-inclusive global club. Forget the false flag of precious metals, it is copper that is hard to replace and crucial for electrification. Some analysts have said the developed world nations that are currently sucking up scarce resources to roll out EVs, which will make no difference to global emissions, with widespread adoption impossible, and in the short term consigning the scarce metals to the landfill.

These alarm bells are not what EV enthusiasts want to hear when they themselves are sounding the warnings on cars run on gasoline and diesel.

Hydrogen hopes

But if H₂ cars are ever going to rejoin the hydrogen highway—something that was talked about two decades ago only to be usurped by EVs with the all-encompassing electricity grid and advancement of battery tech—then somehow the infrastructure conundrum needs to be solved.

Cars will refuel only in close proximity to where large-scale hydrogen production facilities are first developed, on the back of an anchor industrial offtake, such as for green ammonia. The best solution some argue is to upgrade ICE vehicles so they can use hydrogen as a base for synthetic e-fuels in the long run. Far better to run your gasoline engine to the ground and eventually fill up with synthetic e-fuel when it becomes available. But so far, the only country really making a push with hydrogen cars—Japan—has seen sales plunge in the past two years, while EV purchases have climbed. Toyota almost seems a lone voice, with its Mirai model, as economics trump green credentials as consumers buy into the mirage of EV ethics given the lack of hydrogen-fuelled hype.  

Neither ICE vehicles nor EVs will end emissions or save the planet, but hydrogen cars can. Cue derision and guffaws. But the last laugh is still to be had. It is up to policymakers, energy companies and car makers to stop the sheep-like herding by Tesla’s Elon Musk and China’s low-cost EV revolution into a pen from which they will not escape. By then it could be too late.



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