Few technologies have promised such a revolutionary transformation for so long and delivered so little, as has been the case with hydrogen fuel cell cars. Since the dawn of the modern environmental movement half a century ago, hydrogen vehicles, offering zero-emission driving and potential for self-sustaining propulsion, have tantalized engineers and environmentalists alike.

Yet despite several rounds of hype over the years, 50 years on there has been no mass production or widespread adoption. People still don’t care about hydrogen cars. Why? Let’s take a closer look at how this promising technology failed to live up to expectations after all these years.

The General Motors Electrovan

The General Motors Electrovan was a historic vehicle that had the distinction of being the world's first hydrogen fuel cell-powered electric car. It was unveiled in 1966 and operated solely on hydrogen. The GM Electrovan was equipped with a 115 horsepower, 532 V AC induction motor and as many as 90 lead-acid batteries to provide power to its wheels. It could reach speeds of up to 60 mph in 30 seconds. The Electrovan had a range of up to 300 miles on a single tank of hydrogen fuel, and it was surprisingly spacious, with room for two passengers. To top it all off, the vehicle weighed just 7,100 pounds.

The GM Electrovan revolutionized vehicle power sources by introducing the concept of using hydrogen as an alternative energy source for cars. It demonstrated that vehicles powered by hydrogen could be just as capable as their gas-powered counterparts, while also being more efficient and emitting nothing but water as a byproduct. These characteristics make hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles an attractive and viable alternative to traditional gasoline engines, with the potential to reduce emissions, increase efficiency and improve air quality.

Automakers are still chasing their hydrogen dreams

Automakers have long dreamed of a hydrogen-fueled future for the automotive industry. While hydrogen fuel cell technology has become increasingly viable in recent years, automakers are still struggling to make it commercially viable and widely available.

The biggest challenge with hydrogen is its delivery system. As of now, there are only 107 fueling stations in the U.S. that offer access to hydrogen fuel, mostly concentrated in California. This means that many potential customers can't access the necessary infrastructure required to fill up on hydrogen. And since storing large amounts of hydrogen requires costly pressurization facilities, building new fueling stations presents a steep barrier to entry.

There are other challenges as well. Hydrogen fuel cells are expensive to produce, and the current technology doesn't provide enough power density to create a viable electric vehicle with the same range as gasoline-powered cars. Furthermore, hydrogen is highly flammable and can be difficult to transport safely over long distances.

Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a revolutionary transformation, but it has been in development for 50 years without any mass production or widespread adoption. Negro Elkha/Adobe Stock Hydrogen fuel cell cars are a revolutionary transformation, but it has been in development for 50 years without any mass production or widespread adoption. Negro Elkha/Adobe Stock

Despite these downsides, some automakers remain committed to developing and commercializing hydrogen fuel cell technology for vehicles. Honda has released the Clarity Fuel Cell sedan in Japan (which has since been discontinued), while Toyota's Mirai is available in the U.S. with a starting price of nearly $49,500. Chevrolet recently developed and delivered a hydrogen-powered pickup to the U.S. Army.

It's clear that automakers are still chasing hydrogen dreams, and it looks like the technology is slowly becoming more viable over time. Whether or not the industry will see mass adoption of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles remains to be seen, but there are some doubts in the industry to say the least.

Hydrogen cars may never catch up

Hydrogen cars, also known as fuel cell vehicles (FCV), are powered by electricity generated from the chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen. This energy is stored in a fuel cell stack and used to power electric motors. FCVs promise long range with short refueling times and zero emissions — or at least only water vapor coming out of the tailpipe.

Battery electric vehicles (BEV) have been growing rapidly in popularity over the past decade, but FCVs have not seen the same level of adoption. While there are a few FCV models on the market today, they remain a niche offering compared to BEVs. This has led many analysts and industry watchers to predict that hydrogen cars will never catch up with BEVs.

The BEV technology is also outpacing FCVs in terms of cost, performance and infrastructure support. BEV batteries are becoming more energy dense and affordable, while the hydrogen fuel cell technology has not seen major advances since it was introduced about two decades ago. Additionally, BEV charging networks have grown rapidly around the world, making them a much easier choice for most consumers.

It's also worth noting that producing hydrogen fuel is an energy-intensive process, making it less attractive from an environmental standpoint than BEVs. Hydrogen production requires burning large amounts of fossil fuels to produce the needed electricity or steam for reforming natural gas into hydrogen gas. That means that FCVs may never be as clean from a lifecycle perspective as BEVs powered by renewable sources like wind and solar.


Hydrogen cars shouldn’t be compared to EVs. As of today, hydrogen still offers better energy density and fueling convenience, which means that if a breakthrough occurs, it could outcompete electric vehicles in quick order. But at the rate electric vehicle range and battery technology is progressing, it is the better bet to become the mainstay technology of commuter convenience.

To contact the author of this article, email GlobalSpeceditors@globalspec.com