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Can Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles Compete With Electric Cars? Page 2

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Honda FCEV Concept, 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show

Honda FCEV Concept, 2013 Los Angeles Auto Show

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Those vehicles will only be usable in areas where a sustained effort to cover the region with hydrogen fueling stations is already underway. Today, in the U.S., that means Southern California and nowhere else.

Meanwhile, U.S. plug-in car sales are likely to come in around 90,000 this year--of which more than 15,000 will be Tesla Model S electric luxury sedans with more than 200 miles of range.

We expect there to be multiple fuels in the decades going forward; the hegemony of gasoline and diesel will slowly erode as more ethanol, more natural gas, and probably a lot more electricity makes its way from the grid into more vehicles.

Will hydrogen have a place in the mix?

Perhaps not surprisingly, electric-car advocate Chelsea Sexton, to whom we often turn for perspective, thinks not.

Chelsea Sexton

Chelsea Sexton

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No natural constituency?

But in responding to our question, she raised an interesting point.

"There’s never been a pent-up market for hydrogen vehicles," Sexton said, "even a small one."

And that contrasts with the thousands of drivers who'd already experienced electric cars in one form or another by the time the first Nissan Leaf and first Chevy Volt were sold in December 2010.

MORE: Which Carmakers Are Still Serious About Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles?

"I don't see either the market or the infrastructure materializing" in any way that will put meaningful numbers of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles on the road over the next decade, she said.

And she suggested that a double standard exists: "The same carmakers who claim that no market exists for electric vehicles" still expect "to have to build one for hydrogen vehicles."

What really matters?

In other words: What's the constituency for a hydrogen-powered vehicle? Who's the market?

And does it matter that you can't drive your electric car outside a given radius (your home plus any available DC fast charging stations) if you can't drive a hydrogen-powered car outside a 150-mile range of the 40 fueling stations California hopes to build by 2015?

MORE: Electric Cars Are Coming! Hydrogen...Maybe Not So Much (May 2009)

None of these are simple questions, and the answers promise to be a complex mix of consumer desires, government policy, energy politics, and automaker jockeying.

Which is why we think it'll be hellacious fun to cover over the next decade.

But what do you think? How do hydrogen cars stack up against plug-in electric cars? What are the pros and cons for each?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.

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