Hydrogen Vehicle Range and How It Works

By
Laurance Yap
Updated:
Sep 2022
Time to read:
5
min
Hydrogen cars offer the benefits of zero emissions driving with the convenience of quick refuelling. Their range is roughly equivalent to gasoline vehicles, and if you have access to hydrogen fuel stations, they can be refuelled just as fast.
hydrogen fuel pump and car made of green leaves
toyota mirai at hydrogen fuel station

Giving You Flexibility to Go Further

If you want to reduce your carbon footprint but frequently take longer trips, one of the disadvantages of electric cars can be charging time. Even the electric vehicles with the most range can take a long time to refuel. The best ones take less than an hour on a rapid Level 3 DC charger, but that’s still a lot longer than fueling up with gasoline.

For drivers who primarily live or drive in California, where hydrogen fuel stations are more common, the most plentiful element in the universe can become an appealing way to go zero-emissions without giving up the convenience of rapid refueling.  

Hydrogen can be stored in pressurized tanks and can refuel a car in a matter of minutes, even for large commercial vehicles. This reduces downtime on long journeys and improves efficiency for commercial vehicles.  

What Kind of Range Will I Get?

The effective range of your hydrogen-powered vehicle will be determined by its drivetrain technology and the size of its hydrogen tank. Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles operate similar to electric cars while hydrogen combustion vehicles operate similarly to gasoline cars.

toyota hydrogen fuel car

Hydrogen Combustion Engines

A hydrogen combustion engine looks, sounds, and behaves like a gasoline engine – except for the fact that it burns hydrogen and produces no noxious tailpipe emissions. Hydrogen combustion engines deliver roughly the same efficiency and range as a gasoline engine with a similarly sized tank, although the hydrogen tank is pressurized while the gasoline tank is not.  

There are currently no hydrogen combustion vehicles available on the market, so the EPA does not have efficiency numbers or range estimates available.

toyota hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

The first mass-production fuel cell cars for America, the Hyundai Nexo and Toyota Mirai, will be delivered in 2022. This makes hydrogen fuel cell cars sound like a new thing, but fuel cells are a technology that pre-dates the automobile. Fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen in the presence of an electrolyte to produce electric current – like an on-board power generating station!

A hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is an electric vehicle, just without a plug. There’s no big battery to recharge. Instead, you simply fill a tank with compressed hydrogen gas, which takes about five minutes. From the pressurized fuel tank, the gas flows to a fuel cell system, which combines the hydrogen with oxygen from the air. A chemical reaction produces electric current and water, which is the car’s only emission.

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are relatively lighter and less complex than gasoline vehicles and because they don’t rely on a huge battery to derive decent driving range, they are relatively lighter than battery-powered electric vehicles.

That doesn’t mean that fuel cell vehicles have poor range. Because they produce their power on-board from stored hydrogen, the battery can be much smaller and lighter – improving performance, efficiency, and ultimately range.

To help potential buyers compare their options, the EPA provides range estimates for fuel cell electric vehicles -- in the same way that they provide estimates for battery electric vehicles. The Hyundai Nexo SUV carries an EPA range estimate of 380 miles in its most efficient (and least expensive) form. The Toyota Mirai sedan carries a range estimate of 402 miles.

close up of hydrogen fuel pump handle

Efficiency Versus Convenience

The EPA also provides MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent) ratings to help you understand the relative efficiency of hydrogen fuel cell cars. MPGe is an energy efficiency metric that was created by the EPA when the first plug-in hybrid and electric vehicle models were being introduced to the market. Its purpose is to relate the amount of energy used by alternative-fuel vehicles to that of their traditional gas-powered counterparts.

How is a vehicle’s MPGe determined? The EPA uses a formula to calculate the precise amount of electric energy that’s equal to the energy in one gallon of gasoline. Once that amount of energy is determined, the vehicle’s consumption of energy per distance – gasoline, electric, hydrogen, or a mix – can be used to calculate its MPGe.

For reference, the most efficient version of the Toyota Mirai is rated at 76 MPGe in the city and 71 MPGe on the highway, while the Hyundai Nexo carries ratings of 65 MPGe city and 58 MPGe on the highway, due to its taller SUV body. Those numbers compare very favorably to gasoline vehicles of the same size, most of which rate in the 20s and 30s, but they are less efficient than similarly sized electric cars. For instance, the electric Tesla Model S is rated at 119 city MPGe and 112 highway MPGe, while the Volkswagen ID.4 is rated at 104 city MPGe and 89 highway MPGe.

On the other hand, both the Tesla and the Volkswagen take much longer to charge and deliver less driving range than the Mirai and the Nexo, both of which can be refueled in less than five minutes. If a combination of refueling speed and range is valuable to you and you have access to hydrogen refueling, a fuel cell vehicle could offer the best of all worlds.

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