Last week, I had a rare opportunity to drive a selection of the most fuel-efficient vehicles available in Canada during the annual AJAC Eco Run from Vancouver to Nanaimo to Victoria and back (with a little help from BC Ferries). There were 20 vehicles in all: two electric vehicles, two gasoline-electric hybrids, one plug-in hybrid, one extended range electric car, four diesels, nine conventional gasoline-fuelled vehicles and even a hydrogen-powered fuel cell vehicle. The event was designed to demonstrate fuel-efficient driving techniques and showcase the latest green vehicle technologies rather than as a contest to pick a winning technology, but it’s clear to me that some of these technologies stand a better chance of long-term success than others.
Hydrogen fuel cells
In many respects, hydrogen gas appears to be the ideal fuel: combined with oxygen in a fuel-cell, it creates electricity that’s fed to batteries which power electric motors to drive the wheels. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles emit no tailpipe emissions aside from a little water and heat, have a driving range of up to 650 km, and can be filled up in about five minutes. Fuel cell vehicles are quiet and comfortable and drive much like an electric car. However, there are two big drawbacks to hydrogen fuel cells: most hydrogen is produced from methane using energy from a powerplant which may be producing its own carbon emissions that counteract the benefits of a zero-emissions fuel cell; and at present there is virtually no transportation or refuelling infrastructure for hydrogen gas and very little economic incentive for anyone to build one. My prediction for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles is that they will remain an impractical dream.
Pure electric cars
Despite the hype surrounding sexy electric cars like the Tesla Model S, affordable electric cars still have a long way to go before becoming palatable for the mass market. When compared to traditional vehicles, most electric cars are so expensive that governments have to subsidize their cost to get people to buy them; most have a pitifully short driving range; recharging times are much longer than with traditional fuels; public recharging stations are few and far between when compared to gas stations especially outside of major cities; and home recharging stations cost extra if you have a house: apartment owners are mostly out of luck. At present, electric car sales are a tiny proportion of the overall market in North America, and vehicle manufacturers are struggling to get people to buy them in numbers that make producing them profitable. It’s not even clear that electric cars are more emissions-friendly: according to a recent report by University of Toronto professor, Christopher Kennedy, when electricity is generated from coal power plants, the greenhouse gas emissions produced to charge electric cars would be more than the carbon output from traditional vehicles.