Battery-electric and fuel-cell cars each have their own drawbacks (Study)

Battery-electric cars and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles have a lot in common. They’re both powered by electricity, although they get it from different sources. And they’re both zero-emission vehicles pitched as a way to cut oil consumption and harmful emissions.

Each type of vehicle has its own advocates, but what if you’re a buyer trying to choose between the two? Like anything else, battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell cars come with their own distinct pros and cons, according to a new study by University of Michigan Transportation Research Insitute (UMTRI) researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle.

Right now, battery-powered cars have the advantage of numbers. There are handful of models available, and you can get at least some of them no matter where you live. But there are only two fuel-cell models (the Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell and Toyota Mirai) on sale now, and they are only available in certain parts of California.

That’s because of lack of fueling infrastructure, another disadvantage for fuel-cell cars. There are only 14 hydrogen fueling stations open to the public right now, and 11 of those are in California, according to Edmunds. Electric-car charging stations are much cheaper and simpler to install, and can rely on existing utility infrastructure. Battery-electric cars have also been on sale for several years, and infrastructure has been built up over that time.

However, battery-electric cars are still hampered by relatively short ranges and long charging times. Fuel-cell cars can be refueled in about five minutes, and have ranges similar to gasoline cars right out of the box. It’s taken years of development to erode the “range anxiety” associated with battery-powered vehicles, but these cars still can’t quite match their internal-combustion counterparts when it comes to range.

Of course, the main benefit of zero-emission vehicles is efficiency, so how do batteries and fuel cells stack up there. In terms of energy consumption, fuel-cell cars currently on sale were found to average 58.5 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent), while battery-electric cars averaged 105.2 MPGe. Battery-powered cars were also found to be cheaper to operate, at $0.04 per mile, compared to $0.09 for fuel-cell vehicles.

UMTRI researchers also looked at the GREET (Greenhouse gases, Regulated Emissions, and Energy use in Transportation) measure of a car’s environmental impact. With this metric, battery-electric cars came out ahead. They averaged harmful emissions of 214 grams per mile, compared to 260 to 364 g/mi for fuel-cell vehicles. The variance is due to differences in hydrogen sources.

Ultimately, it’s up to the buyer to decide what factors to prioritize. For now, the question of batteries versus fuel cells remains an open one, but at least buyers (in certain regions, at least), now have two zero-emission powertrain technologies to choose from.