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How do fuel cell electric cars compare with battery electric cars?

Green car leaf

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles, or FCEVs, could be the next generation of electric transportation. But how do they compare to today’s battery electric vehicles (EVs) on range, refueling time, and availability? We take a look.

Similarities & differences

Electric Battery Hydrogen Full Cell Sign

First, the similarities. Both battery electric and fuel cell vehicles use electric motors instead of gasoline- or diesel-powered internal combustion engines for propulsion. And because neither EVs nor FCEVs consume fossil fuel, both are zero-emission vehicles. Another benefit is that they require less maintenance.

The differences? While both battery electric and fuel cell vehicles are powered by electricity, the source of the electricity is fundamentally different. An EV uses energy stored in a rechargeable battery pack. When it’s depleted, it must be recharged from the power grid, either from a wall socket or a dedicated charging unit.  

Hydrogen fuel cell in the lab

By contrast, FCEVs produce their own electricity. Hydrogen fuel stored in an onboard fuel tank is fed into a fuel-cell stack. Air combines with the hydrogen fuel and a chemical reaction takes place, generating electricity, which is directed to an electric motor that propels the vehicle. No harmful greenhouse gases or pollutants are released—only heat and water.

Electric car charging

Battery electric and fuel cell vehicles also differ in range and how long they take to refuel. Most EVs have ranges of about 75-110 miles, well within the daily drive distances of most Americans. (Tesla’s Model S and Model X, and Chevy’s Bolt, are exceptions at about 200-300 miles.)

Typical EV charge times from empty are as rapid as a half-hour for an 80% charge on a DC quick charger, about 7-10 hours for a full charge on a 240-volt line, and up to 24 hours on 120 volts. In practice, however, many drivers find that they only need to charge long enough to replace the distance driven that day, which can significantly reduce charging times.

Hydrogen fuel station nozzle

By contrast, today’s FCEVs have ranges of 250-300 miles and refill times of 5-10 minutes, comparable to gasoline vehicles. But to gain widespread acceptance, fuel cell vehicles will require hydrogen fueling infrastructure. A few dozen such facilities are operational, with most in California and the East Coast, and more are in the works.

In comparison, there are more than 35,000 existing public charging outlets nationwide, with many more coming online daily. Plus, most battery electric vehicle owners use home and work outlets. 

EV pros
Proven technology
Home charging
Established charger networks in some states
Low cost of electricity
Batteries are becoming cheaper
 
EV cons
Limited range
Long recharging times
Range shortened by accessory use and extreme temperatures
Range decreases as battery ages
FCEV pros
Range of about 300 miles, comparable to gas vehicles
Quick refill time (5 to 10 minutes)
Range less affected by extreme temperatures
Hydrogen fuel is currently subsidized
FCEV cons
Limited availability of hydrogen fuel
Unclear future for hydrogen fueling infrastructure
Unsubsidized fuel cost unknown
Home refueling unlikely
System longevity not yet tested

Barriers to widespread adoption

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EVs: long charging times

Even the fastest chargers take half an hour to refill a battery to 80% charge, and some cars take days to fully charge on a 120-volt home charger.

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EVs: limited range

Except for Tesla models and the new Chevy Bolt, improvements to batteries and vehicle range have only been incremental in recent years.

hydrogen fuel pump

FCEVs: lack of infrastructure

Drivers won’t buy hydrogen vehicles if there’s nowhere to fuel them, and no one will build fueling stations if there are no hydrogen vehicles to use them.

fuel pump icon

Both: gasoline cars

Gas vehicles, familiar and time-tested, will remain the default choice for most buyers as long as gasoline remains relatively cheap.

Fuel cell vehicles on the road today

Honda Clarity fuel-cell vehicle

The Honda Clarity sedan is the most recent fuel cell vehicle available to the public. Sold and leased only in California, it was introduced in late 2016. The Clarity produces 174 horsepower, similar to an economical gasoline-powered sedan. It has an EPA-estimated range of about 366 miles, and a 68 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) rating.

Honda offers the Clarity on a 36-month lease with 20,000 miles per year for $369 per month with $2,499 down, and includes $15,000 worth of free hydrogen fuel.

Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle

In 2015, Toyota introduced its fuel-cell Mirai sedan. It produces 153 horsepower and has an EPA-estimated range of about 312 miles, and a 63 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) rating.

The Mirai can be leased for $499 per month for 36 months. Similar to Honda's lease deal, Toyota provides customers with free hydrogen fuel for 3 years. By mid-August 2016, Toyota had sold or leased just over 400 Mirais.

Hyundai Tucson fuel cell vehicle

The oldest fuel-cell vehicle on the market is currently Hyundai's fuel-cell version of its Tucson crossover, available for lease only to California residents. It was introduced in mid-2014, and the company has produced about 60 per year. The Tucson makes 134 horsepower with a range of 265 miles, and Hyundai leases them for $499 a month for 36 months and $2,999 down. The lease includes the cost of all hydrogen fuel.

EV and FCEV models compared

hybrid vehicle icon

Nissan Leaf

Battery electric

Range: 84-107 miles
Charge per hour (estimated):

  • 440 volts: Full charge in 30 minutes
  • 240 volts: 17 miles of charge per hour
  • 120 volts: 4 miles of charge per hour

Efficiency rating:
112 MPGe
Horsepower: 107
0-60 mph time:
10.4 seconds

hybrid vehicle

Tesla Model S

Battery electric

Range: 210-335 miles
Charge per hour (estimated):

  • Supercharger: 270 miles per hour
  • 240 volts: 30 miles of charge per hour
  • 120 volts: 5 miles of charge per hour

Efficiency rating:
93-104 MPGe
Horsepower: 382-605
0-60 mph time:
2.5-5.5 seconds

hydrogen vehicle icon

Toyota Mirai

Hydrogen fuel cell

Range: 312 miles
Refueling time: 5 minutes


Efficiency rating: 63 MPGe
Horsepower: 153
0-60 mph time:
9.4 seconds

Want to compare more green cars?

The annual AAA Car Guide is a detailed guidebook to vehicles including fuel-efficient gas vehicles, along with electric, hybrid, diesel, and alternative-fueled vehicles. It also provides real-world evaluations of the vehicles to help you determine which car might best suit your lifestyle.

Get the free guide

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