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It’s VHS versus Betamax. It’s Playstation versus Dreamcast. It’s Blackberry versus iPhone.
Except it’s not any of those things: It’s batteries versus fuel cells.
For most of the market, this question appears pretty well wrapped up, with battery electric vehicles (BEV) dominating. Especially if you live in L.A., you probably know someone who drives a Tesla, a Rivian, a Kia EV6 or even maybe a Nissan Leaf. Do you know anybody driving a fuel cell electric vehicle? Seen any Honda Claritys on the road recently? Probably not. The same is true for medium- and short-range delivery vehicles of various sizes; Amazon is famously working with Rivian to electrify its fleet with BEVs, while school buses are increasingly relying on battery electric technology.
But in the realm of long-haul trucking, things are a little different. When you need to move a lot of stuff a long way, the power requirements are just so much higher, which leaves the door open—maybe just a crack—for fuel cells. The California Air Resources Board’s Advanced Clean Trucks rule requires that 40% of all tractor trailers sales must be zero-emission by 2035, though it doesn’t specify how, exactly, to make that happen.
In terms of cost, both nascent technologies are far more expensive than their diesel predecessors: A report from the International Council on Clean Transportation estimates that a BEV truck will cost an average of roughly $240,000 by 2025, while a fuel cell electric truck should be just north of $300,000. Meanwhile, a diesel truck will run you about $125,000. That’s a huge bet for fleet owners to make as they try to figure out which of these competing technologies will win out—especially when both have their pros and cons.
Fuel cells, which use hydrogen gas to generate electricity that powers electric motors, offer some tantalizing advantages—chiefly, refueling times akin to diesel or any other fossil fuel-powered vehicle. The technology may also be able to deliver superior range: Mercedes Benz’s GenH2 truck, planned for 2027, will reportedly have a range up to 620 miles. For comparison, diesel-powered trucks typically boast a range of around 500 miles and take less time to refuel.
Batteries, on the other hand, are more efficient than fuel cells and have a (somewhat) more proven track record in automobiles—but require lengthy, and thus costly, charging. Prototype electric tractor trailers have typically clocked in with ranges in the 200-300 mile range so far; both L.A.-based Xos and Portland-based Freightliner claim a maximum range of 230 miles on their BEV tractor trailers.
But what BEVs lack in refueling (charging) speed, they make up for with their massive head start in infrastructure: America is already home to more than 40,000 public electric vehicle charging stations. That’s still not as many as we need to complete a wholesale transition to EVs—and certainly not enough of the faster Level 3 type that trucks would require—but compared to hydrogen refueling sites, it’s a veritable cornucopia of options. As of 2020, there were a grand total of 43 retail hydrogen fueling stations across the entire U.S.—with most of those concentrated in California alone, according to the Department of Energy. Both Shell and Chevron have expressed interest in building out just this sort of hydrogen infrastructure in Europe and the U.S., respectively—much to the chagrin of some analysts who see the move as a way for oil companies to maintain their grip on the energy economy. While it’s probably a bad idea to bet against the oil industry’s ability to lobby governments and win contracts of that sort of scale, there’s no denying that hydrogen infrastructure is playing catch up.
Unlike the great VHS versus Betamax debate, much of this battle will come down to how these technologies mature; it’s unlikely, for the time being, that any DVD-like development comes along and renders fuel cells or BEVs obsolete, so the onus is on them to continue to emerge and evolve to meet society’s transportation needs. At the moment, it seems like it should be easier to improve batteries (via solid-state technology, better materials, and faster charging capabilities) than to build a nationwide hydrogen distribution system that serves only tractor trailers.
But if Betamax taught us anything, it’s that the superior technology isn’t necessarily the one that always wins. — David Shultz
Tripp, the virtual reality meditation startup that simulates psychedelic experiences, also unveiled its acquisition of Eden, a VR-based world-building platform and online social hub created by video game developer Bearded Eye.
The streaming giant has been experimenting with ways to prevent password sharing among extended friends and family networks in Peru, Chile and Costa Rica, but inconsistencies have frustrated some customers.
The family of Kerri Moynihan, an Activision Blizzard employee who died by suicide during a company retreat in 2017, have reportedly dropped their wrongful death lawsuit against the Santa Monica-based video game publisher.
The Santa Monica-based social media firm has a new product that lets hotels, airlines and travel agencies create ads targeted at users who intend to travel, using location data and other metrics.
The singer posted earlier this month that their record label was holding their new single hostage until they created a “fake viral” moment on TikTok. Ironically, the complaint went viral and song is now dropping on June 9.
What We’re Reading Elsewhere...
- West Hollywood startup Bite's founder on how she recreated her product to (actually) be eco-friendly.
- Faraday Future partners on a voice assistant for its ultra luxury EVs.
- TikTok will livestream L.A.'s Pride Parade.
- Sylmar-based Vallarta Supermarkets partners with the Flashfood app to offer foods nearing expiration at deep discounts.
- Prime Data Centers plans to build a new 261K square-foot facility in Vernon.