Popping the hydrogen bubble

Electric and hydrogen cars present us with what looks like a transportation paradigm where almost everything becomes worse for the user in the short term.

Electric and hydrogen cars present us with what looks like a transportation paradigm where almost everything becomes worse for the user in the short term

For the holidays this year I received a GPS, the device which uses satellite readings to provide precise map directions. It literally talks you through the trauma of trying to figure out how to get to a strange place by counseling you in the brightest of voices: "Turn left in 250 metres, drive 250 metres more; arrive at your destination."

Use the GPS for about 15 minutes and you find your inner voice hymning: Don't, repeat don't, ever, ever use a printed map again because maps have become the directional equivalent of Og using a stone axe to chop down a tree. I experienced this technological epiphany and then wondered in the next breath if people would ever switch over to a technology that, in the short term at least, makes their life more difficult.

I posed the question to myself, because I had, at almost the same time, finished reading David Sanborn Scott's Smelling Land, the Hydrogen Defense Against Climate Catastrophe, and a series of articles about Better Place, a vision of an electric car grid being put forward by Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi.

Both views posit a car future growing out of many of the same presuppositions. For a variety of reasons — climate change and dependence on foreign oil being pre-eminent — mankind should soon switch from gasoline and diesel to some other more abundant, less polluting form of transportation fuel. Scott argues that to accomplish this we should produce hydrogen by separating it from the oxygen it is joined to in water. Then we can use the hydrogen in fuel cells, devices ultimately capable of powering every vehicle you can think of.

Even better, we can use the same water over and over again since the emissions from the hydrogen car's exhaust will be water vapour.

Better place?

The Better Place vision is that in the near future electric cars will be able to get regular battery "re-fills" from electrical outlets hooked up to, say, parking meters. Furthermore, if drivers are on the highway, they can pull into a "switching station" and get a fully recharged battery to replace their dying one.

The Better Place vision of the future has convinced Denmark, and Hawaii and Israel to begin constructing a grid scenario - hopefully one using electricity derived from renewable sources such as sunlight and wind. Each approach has been effusively championed. Better Place has recently been promoted by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who argued against bailouts for the automobile industry because he believes the electric grid will do to cars what iPods did to the CD music business, and the PC and internet to the typewriter. That is, turn them into Og's stone axes.

Scott's book has sparked the creation of a group of  "Hydrogen Ambassadors." They are virally passing the book on to everyone with an interest in climate change, and to that end have found a way to get it to advisers of U.S. president-elect Barack Obama.

While the sentiment in favour of getting the world off its climate-changing oil diet is beyond noble, it is not at all apparent that either of these approaches is ever going to succeed. 

Here's the rationale for skepticism: when one looks at the difficulties involved in switching over to either hydrogen or electricity from today's cars, the thing that strikes you is that in many ways we will be going from better to worse.

Because of batteries' limited charge life, electric cars clearly will need to be recharged often — maybe the equivalent of three charges to every gasoline fill-up. That charging wouldn't be the equivalent of a 10-minute gas stop, either — recharging could take upwards of five hours. So if a battery-change station were not easily available along the route, then a single charge would limit electric car drivers to traveling within the borders of a sprawling town.

The changing of batteries is anything but easy, because today they weigh about 400 pounds and are six feet long. Not to mention the added up-front cost: estimates in the U.S. are that electric cars are anywhere from $6,000 US to $11,000 more expensive than gas-powered ones.

And, oh yes, did I mention that unlike gasoline or hydrogen fuels, as an electric battery loses power its performance tends to decline?


There are a million different problems with hydrogen, too, starting with the fact that to make it you have to use electricity from other sources to separate the hydrogen from the oxygen in water. Consequently, Scott in his book speaks often and glowingly of nuclear power plants.

Transporting hydrogen in a gaseous form is a pain, too. As a 2004 article in the journal Science points out, "it would take 21 tanker trucks to haul the amount of energy a single gasoline truck delivers today."

Accordingly, proponents talk hopefully about liquefying hydrogen gas. However, to do that you have to cool hydrogen to minus-253 Celsius, only a few degrees above Absolute Zero, and the same Science article argues that this "requires about 30 per cent of the energy in hydrogen."

Not to mention the other negative factors, such as the much-higher price for a hydrogen car today compared with the selling price of traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, and the obvious lack of hydrogen "gas" stations.


While I'm pointing out all these negatives to you, I also think that a move away from an oil-based economy is not only a good thing, but ultimately probably a vital and a necessary thing. We don't get to either hydrogen or electrical cars, however, with one of those painless technological revolutions that Friedman flourished before his readers. 

What electric and hydrogen cars present us with is what looks like a transportation paradigm where almost everything becomes worse for the user in the short term: less driving convenience, more expenses. Consequently, electric-car or hydrogen-car drivers may well look over at the gasoline-powered vehicles driving in lane next, and instead of a sense of environmental superiority, they'll feel convenience-envy — and unless oil prices go crazy, price envy as well.

That is what is most scary about our energy futures. We have got used to being saved by technology, to blithely adapting to devices that are so superior to their predecessors that they crush them like my new GPS crushing printed maps and atlases. Now, however, we may find ourselves in a position where to limit climate change or reduce fuel dependency will mean convincing humans to buy less convenient and likely costlier devices.

Frankly I don't know whether moderns have the will to give up the godhood of convenience and cheapness and figuratively reach for Og's stone axe.

If an external threat — global warming in particular - hasn't got very, very, very much worse than anything we see today, my suspicion is that many people won't willfully abandon their gasoline-powered cars until the steering wheels of these vehicles are forcibly removed from their cold dead hands.

At least that's the verity my GPS has been silently telling me as I prepare to donate all my printed maps to the GPS-deprived, wherever they are found.