Study Pits Electric Cars Against Fuel-Cell Vehicles

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2016 Toyota Mirai

CARS.COM — In the battle for clean-car energy supremacy, there's battery electric and fuel-cell technology; which will be the prevailing power? A new study from the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute considers the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Related: Annual Fuel Economy Decline Now a Near Certainty

According to institute researchers Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, battery-powered vehicles offer the most readily available fuel source for the current infrastructure. Plug-in electric cars are widely available to the public and boast the lowest per-mile operation costs. On the other hand, driving range remains the lowest of any vehicle type, and they require the lengthiest refueling/recharging times.

Fuel-cell vehicles, meanwhile, offer the longest ranges, have the shortest refueling times and also have the potential to use the least amount of fuel per mile. However, few models are available, and infrastructure for refueling is "practically nonexistent" outside California.

"There is a general consensus among the experts that expansion of the hydrogen infrastructure needs to precede the mass introduction of FCVs in order to raise consumer confidence in the availability of hydrogen fuel," the report stated.

Indeed, compared with the comparably vast availability of gas and electric refueling, fuel-cell refueling is anything but practical. The institute noted that 114,000 gas stations exist in the U.S., while 14,000 stations will offer 34,000 battery-charging outlets within the next year. That's compared with a scant 14 public fuel-cell stations in only four states. Moreover, the cost of a residential battery charger is about only $1,000, and a commercial charger costs between $10,000 and $100,000 — compared with $3 million to $5 million for a public hydrogen-refueling station.

Cost per mile is another factor. Compared with gas-powered cars' current cost of 10 cents a mile, fuel-cell vehicles improve on that figure by only a penny. Battery-electric cars' cost per mile is less than half that. In terms of availability, there are 13 unique battery-electric models from 10 automakers for the 2016 model year, while available fuel-cell vehicles number only two from as many manufacturers.

Battery-electric vehicles also are the clear winner when it comes to fuel economy at an average of 105.2 miles per gallon equivalent compared with 58.5 mpg-e for fuel cells; the current average fuel economy for gas vehicles is 23.3 mpg, according to the report. Fuel-cell vehicles make up some miles in range, however, with an average of 289 miles versus just 110 for battery electrics; gas-powered vehicles average more than 400 miles of range.

What does the future hold for the proliferation of either fuel-saving technology? It's unclear, but months upon months of declining gas prices, culminating in pump prices of less than $2 a gallon, have stunted sales of hybrid and all-electric vehicles while sales of pickup trucks and SUVs have surged.

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Senior Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers.  Email Matt

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