Despite Flaws, Electric Cars Trump Hydrogen, Gasoline Cars on Emissions, Efficiency and Operating Costs, Says New Study

If you’re reading Transport Evolved, the chances are you’re here because you’ve an interest in reading about cleaner, greener safer and smarter transportation. And if that’s the case, the chances are that you’re either interested in battery electric, plug-in hybrid, or hydrogen fuel cell cars.

Listen to advocates for each, and you’ll be given a wide range of benefits, ranging from the zero emission, cheap fuel and instant torque of an electric car through to the speedy refueling capabilities of a hydrogen fuel cell car and the ‘best of both worlds’ offered by a range-extended electric or plug-in hybrid car. In each case, owners will produly — and sometimes even ferociously — defend why their chosen propulsion method is more superior to any others. But which fuel source is the best choice for the vehicles of tomorrow — and why?

Hydrogen cars are far better than gasoline, but can't quite compete yet with BEVs in terms of emissions.

Hydrogen cars are far better than gasoline, but can’t quite compete yet with BEVs in terms of emissions.

That’s a question researchers at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI) (via GreenCarCongressAutobloggreen) have been trying to answer, reviewing technical literature covering the energy and carbon footprints associated with battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars, comparing them to gasoline vehicles and trying to arrive at a cogent overall picture of which fuel source is best.

Alongside existing scientific papers on the subject, Brandon Schoettle and Dr. Michael Sivak, the report’s authors, also interviewed experts in the automotive and energy sectors concerning their opinions on infrastructure and energy generation. Collating those responses alongside more formal academic studies, the duo came up with their final verdict as to which areas each vehicle excelled.

Electric cars do on average have a higher wells-to-wheels petroleum usage than hydrogen fuel cell cars -- but far lower emissions.

Electric cars do on average have a higher wells-to-wheels petroleum usage than hydrogen fuel cell cars — but far lower emissions.

Their conclusion? While gasoline vehicles win when it comes to availability of mechanics, vehicle choice, refuelling time and overall range, electric cars had the edge when it comes to average fuel economy, effective cost per mile, and wheel-to-wheels greenhouse gas emissions. Hydrogen vehicles meanwhile, only came out on top when it came to wheel-to-wheels total petroleum usage.

Overall, the duo found battery electric vehicles to offer the most readily available alternative fuel source, thanks the way in which you can easily charge most electric cars from the grid. With high efficiency and easily-obtainable fuel, electric cars came out with the lowest effective running cost, averaging just 4 cents per mile. But with most electric cars having a range of around 100 miles per charge, they lost out to both hydrogen and gasoline cars on overall range.

Electric cars have the edge when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions too, even using the average U.S. mix of renewable and non-renewable sources of electricity. At 214 grams per mile, electric cars had the edge on gaseous hydrogen fuel cell cars, which managed an average of 260 grams per mile. Switch that hydrogen to liquid form however, and the extra energy required to compress it bumps up the effective emissions per mile to 364 grams of GCH per mile driven, placing liquid-fuelled hydrogen fuel cell cars at the bottom end of the most efficient direct-injection gasoline cars on the market today. As you might expect, gasoline cars came out with the worst GHG emission figures, ranging from 356 grams per mile to 406 grams per mile.

When it comes to maintenance however, gasoline vehicles come out top. That, says the report, is something that can be changed, with more training for service staff on both electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles likely as vehicles become more popular. It also noted that unlike battery electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel cell cars have very few qualified emergency responders who are trained to work on them in an emergency situation.

Infrastructure is still the biggest killer of H2 cars though, admits the report.

Infrastructure is still the biggest killer of H2 cars though, admits the report.

As for infrastructure? Based on the lower refueling times of hydrogen vehicles compared to battery electric cars, as well as the “significantly longer driving ranges” when compared with ‘similar’ electric vehicles, the report says there is a general consensus among experts that hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure investment is worthwhile for the future, but notes that when it comes to approximate costs for infrastructure, hydrogen is unbelievably expensive.

Citing an average cost of $3- to $5-million for a hydrogen filling station, and $1- to $2-million for a gasoline filling station, the study notes that electric cars win hands down on infrastructure costs, with the average cost of a home charging station now hovering around $1,000 and even the most expensive high-power public charging stations costing no more than $100,000 .

As with any study, there are some pretty large generalizations made by the report and some of the figures quoted are out of date in terms of range and energy costs. But from where we’re sitting, it paints electric vehicles as the next logical transportation choice.

Do you agree? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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  • Albemarle

    Interesting, but a very mixed thought report.
    For example, a BEV uses a $1,000 fueling station. How many gasoline cars can be filled at a $1M station? Perhaps 600 a day, and they can go 4 times further on a refuel, so that’s just over $400 equivalent cost each. That’s the problem when comparing individual costs and a muti-user infrastructure.

    With gasoline cars gaining efficiency yearly, (some estimate there is another 20% efficiency to be gained), it looks like hydrogen, with its massive development costs, will have a tough time staying ahead of gasoline. Much of that is because gasoline development is where the auto industry is focussing most of their efforts.

    Doesn’t mean that hydrogen won’t be a success, as there are other factors than efficiency. But if the EPA place liquid hydrogen no cleaner than the best gasoline car, where’s the incentive for industry or consumers to spend the money?

    Longer average range in BEV and additional DC charging seems to be the trick for the quickest environmental change over the next 20 years. That’s the critical time period imho. We can fine tune the mix after we get the big environmental changes done.

    • Joe Viocoe

      A 600 car per day gas station costs WAY more than $1 million. Then there are annual costs for land, maintenance, logistics, etc.

      Factor this in, and the electric comes out on top.

      Internal combustion gains in efficiency get smaller and smaller. Diminishing returns.
      20% more efficient from current levels, maybe. But not adding another 20%.

      The best efficiency gains have only been possible through electrification.

  • Janner

    Home charging is the key to low ownership costs of EVs. With todays 80miles range, home charging is satisfactory for most journeys but not all. With 200m range (2017) almost all journeys can be driven with a car charged from home. The motorway infrastructure of rapid chargers make longer journeys, done infrequently, achievable and a 30min charging beak every 200miles is a minor inconvenience and a useful safety feature.
    On-route chargers need to be available at service stations and in enough numbers that you can be reasonably sure of connecting when you pull in – we’re getting there with this but it’s really a grid problem as much as a service provider issue.

  • Choddo

    Those CO2 figures seem very high, is that including manufacturing, battery construction etc?

  • Chris O

    Ultimately it’s about consumer appeal. Cost and convenience are probably major factors in that and it looks like EVs already have the edge even on gasoline when it comes to cost, they just need to do better on convenience. That means more range and comprehensive quick charge support and these quick chargers need to get quicker. Looks like 200 miles will be the new benchmark come 2017, but alas despite the relatively low cost of quick charge infrastructure nobody besides Tesla is systematically rolling out 100KW+ output quick charge infrastructure. Even Tesla needs to get get charge times down by another 50% for real road trip convenience I think.

    …and than there is hydrogen. Currently horrible in cost and convenience for lack of infrastructure. Unless HFCVs get down to the price of gasoline vehicles (50% price reduction but probably ~75% cost reduction needed)and the fuel gets cheaper than gasoline (~80% price reduction needed, even assuming an $3/gallon long term average)there is really no reason to assume any interest at all in HFCVs even if comprehensive infrastructure were in place, considering the downsides like lower range, longer refuel sessions, low interior space for size, potentially costly maintenance requirements and so on.

  • WV1234

    What about the maintenance costs of EV’s compared to ICE vehicles? ICE engines have transmission, valves and many moving parts which make them less reliable, or in need of more maintenance.