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Some of the biggest automakers are taking hydrogen seriously. What now?

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Think that battery-powered electric vehicles are the future of four-wheeled transportation? They may very well be, but an unlikely competitor is gaining a surprising amount of traction.

Hydrogen fuel cells — which use compressed hydrogen as their fuel and release only water vapor as their emissions — have been in development for decades. But only recently have they become livable, with performance and range numbers good enough to replace an average driver's gasoline-powered car. Now BMW, which has been engaged in a hydrogen R&D partnership with Toyota for several years, has announced at an event in France that it will begin testing fuel cell vehicles on public roads starting later this month as it ramps up for a commercial vehicle "some time after 2020," reports Automotive News, citing comments from BMW's Matthias Klietz.

BMW i8 hydrogen
One of BMW's hydrogen-powered prototypes is a highly modified i8.

BMW's moves come at a time of rapid change for the nascent fuel cell business: Volkswagen Group's Audi recently announced that it was effectively ready for a commercial hydrogen vehicle, and Toyota is months away from launching the first "mass market" fuel cell car in the US, the Mirai. Honda, meanwhile, has released hydrogen vehicles in limited numbers before. The company, along with Nissan and Toyota, just announced a joint partnership to build out hydrogen infrastructure in Japan.

When this many of the world's top-10 automakers are throwing weight behind hydrogen, it's impossible to ignore. And as a fuel source, it's every bit as ecologically friendly on the road as a battery electric like Tesla's Model S is. But hydrogen isn't without controversy: Elon Musk has famously called hydrogen fuel cells a "bullshit" technology, arguing that distribution challenges alone make it less efficient than pure electricity. Efficient large-scale hydrogen production can be a problem, too, which Toyota has tried to smooth over by noting that it can be produced quite literally from bullshit.

Hydrogen station
A hydrogen station in Japan. (Toyota)

But even in the best case, Musk is right that hydrogen needs to be physically delivered to stations in a way that electrons do not. And right now, those stations don't even exist at any useful scale. As part of the Mirai's extremely slow roll-out — Toyota only expects to sell a few thousand by 2017 — the company has partnered with suppliers to build out small networks of hydrogen refueling stations in California and the US Northeast that will make regional travel possible, if not convenient. Cross-country trips, however, will be beyond the Mirai's reach for the foreseeable future; meanwhile, Tesla has over 450 Supercharger stations globally. Level 1 chargers are practically everywhere, and faster combo chargers will bring Supercharger-speed charging to EVs from a variety of brands.

Customers are just following the money

To speed adoption, Toyota has opened its hydrogen patents to competitors, with the logic that the only way infrastructure will get built is if a variety of major automakers are in the mix. But as long as fossil fuels are around and reasonably priced, it's possible that none of this will matter: evidence suggests that a majority of car buyers simply follow the money when the time comes to buy a car. In an interview with The Verge, Ford CEO Mark Fields agreed: "In 2010 or '11 there were probably 10 or 12 electrified vehicles, either conventional or plug-in hybrids, and they made up about 2.5 percent of the total industry. Year to date, there are over 55 electrified vehicles in the industry, and year to date, through the first quarter [of 2015], they take up... 2.5 percent of the industry," he says.

But once gasoline becomes scarce or expensive — which it inevitably will sooner or later — the advantage may simply go to whichever technology is more affordable and more accessible. With vehicles like the Tesla Model 3 and Chevrolet Bolt in the works, both of which are promising usable range and a sticker price $35,000 or below, EVs certainly appear to have the leg up on hydrogen. The Mirai will list for over $58,000 before rebates at launch, and will have access to precious few refilling points. Unlike an EV, you can't just plug it in when you get home.

This explains why most automakers are hedging their bets across multiple technologies: BMW, for instance, sells electrics, hybrids, and diesels in addition to its efforts in hydrogen development. And Klietz doesn't pull any punches about hydrogen's prospects in his comments to Automotive News: "By around 2025 to 2030, we expect fuel cell cars to have an established presence, but there are challenges that remain, like building the refueling infrastructure."