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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Chevy Bolt & Tesla Model 3, The 1-2 Punch That Kills Fuel Cell Vehicles

The Chevrolet Bolt and the Tesla Model 3 are oft squared off as rivals. You can find this head to head square-off in story after story (and even this blog). Both are 200+ mile range EVs and both are in the ~$30K price range. But there is another foe that these two have in common and that is fuel cell vehicles. If fuel cell vehicles are the future of transportation, then Tesla, GM, and others are wasting their efforts on battery powered vehicles.

Honda, Toyota, and others are betting heavily on fuel cell vehicles (FCV).
2017 Honda Clarity FCV rendering
To see how these technologies will square off we'll look at infrastructure, cost, and consumer acceptance.

Comparing Infrastructure

We have detailed the problems with FCVs here, but the simple truth is that FC passenger vehicles require a vast, expensive hydrogen refueling infrastructure that does not exist.

Plug-in vehicles require infrastructure too, but recharging can be done from any outlet, the very same ones that we use to recharge our phones and computers. Overnight charging in your own garage means that you can start out each day with a "full tank" and you don't have to detour to a filling station.

The one advantage that FCVs can tout over EVs is refilling time. That is, if you can find an hydrogen (H2) filling station. Fast refill time is a great component for long distance driving. However, the few H2 filling stations that we do have in the U.S. are primarily in California. This currently makes the FCVs a regional vehicle, despite their range and refueling speed. You can drive a FCV from L.A. to San Diego and back, but there is no refilling available to make a coast to coast trip.

You can drive a FCV from LA to San Diego and back, but forget about driving from LA to NYC.

Comparing Cost

The Toyota Mirai currently sells for $57,500. The Honda's FCV is expected to have a similar ~$60k price tag. The Chevy Bolt is expected to cost $37,500 before $7,500 federal incentive price and Tesla says the Model 3 will be $35,000 before the federal incentive.

H2 filling for the first two years of FCV ownership is currently free. After that, it is not clear how much it will cost. The current estimates available, when broken down as price per mile, are that H2 will cost approximately the equivalent to $6 per gallon gasoline.

Driving on electricity, depending on your local utility rates, it costs about the same as $1 per gallon gasoline.

Fuel cell vehicles are twice the cost to purchase and 6 times the cost to fuel.

Customer Acceptance 

Both battery electric vehicles and fuel cell vehicles offer smooth rides and great acceleration driven by electric motors, both can be 'fueled' from renewable resources. Despite these similarities, they have had very different acceptance in the alt fuel community.

Given the small region that actually has H2 filling stations, there are not many places that currently sell FCVs. This has significantly reduced the number of potential customers for FCVs. In contrast, EVs are currently sold around the world. And the Chevy/Opel Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will be sold worldwide.

Additionally, Toyota's marketing has specifically attacked battery electric vehicles. This, and other events, has divide the community into two camps. Many of the customers that are early adopters of alt fuel vehicles are now adamantly opposed to fuel cell vehicles. Without an enthusiastic group of early adopters, you can not move to the mass adoption stage.

Fuel cell vehicles don't have the enthusiastic following that is needed to move to beyond a niche market.


The Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will coming out and competing with the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity FCV.

The Chevy Bolt and Tesla Model 3 will be affordable long range electric vehicles. These two vehicles, and the fast followers like them, will bring new customers to the EV market. These will be customers that were not comfortable with the ~100 mile range EVs and those that could not afford the more expensive Tesla Model S.

The FCVs will be twice the price with a fraction of the locations to refuel. This will leave cars like the Toyota Mirai and Honda Clarity FCV with no significant number of prospective customers.

The affordable 200+ mile EV could be what is finally needed to bring an end to idea that passenger cars are the right segment to first deploy FCVs.

Vehicle Type Vehicle Cost Range (miles) Fuel Cost eqv Refueling Time
Battery Electric ~$30,000 200-250 ~$1 per gallon
30 min to 80%
Fuel Cell ~$60,000 300-400 ~$6 per gallon
5-10 minutes

Table 1 - Battery Electric and Fuel Cell Vehicle Comparison