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Japanese Saying Goodbye To Electric Vehicles

Buying new technology too early is expensive and could leave you out in the cold if it doesn’t catch on.

The Betamax vs VHS format war is an often-cited example of why it’s smart to wait until the marketplace has solved an issue before buying a new product. Besides, technology only gets cheaper over time as it’s mass-produced.

You can still buy a Sony Betamax machine if you have movies from that era, which might go well with the horse you’re riding around town. 

Two of Japan’s biggest automakers recently announced a shift away from pure electric vehicles, or EVs, and back to gasoline-electric hybrids and a leap to a new green technology: fuel-cell cars that convert hydrogen to electricity. Even the “father of the Prius,” the most successful hybrid gas-electric car, announced that Toyota is pursuing fuel-cell cars.

Ford is also looking at the technology, which doesn’t create any polluting emissions — only water vapor and heat.

No longer will EV owners have to plug their cars in every 70 miles or so at charging stations that aren’t nearly as widespread as gas stations. The future of the automobile, Japan’s major automakers say, is the fuel cell.

As anyone who read “Popular Science” magazine as a child may remember, fuel-cell cars aren’t a new idea and are sold as toy kits for kids to make. It isn’t Betamax, but it hasn’t caught on yet either.

For now, hydrogen costs too much to run a car, says Andy Kinard, president of Car Charging Group of Miami Beach, Fla., a nationwide provider of electric vehicle charging services..

“The biggest problem is we don’t have a system to distribute hydrogen,” says Kinard, who is skeptical of the plan by some automakers to skip EVs.

“It’s such a strange way to do it,” he says. “It just can’t catch on.”

Hydrogen doesn’t exist in its pure form on earth, so it has to be extracted from existing molecules. One common method to produce hydrogen is by splitting water molecules. Like all other hydrogen producing technologies, this is too expensive for use in a car, says Michael Gorton, CEO of Principal Solar and an engineer and physicist.

“There are lots of new battery technologies that are on the horizon,” Gorton says. “If somebody licks the price obstacle of it, they’ve really got something.”

Liquid batteries that store renewable energy are one idea, with such a battery getting 200 to 300 miles in an electric car, he says. 

Lithium batteries are improving and are among the ways to run a car longer, says Dan Shanahan, director of sales and marketing at EVSE, which makes EV charging products. “It’s just one of the mixes that everyone’s looking at,” Shanahan says. 

But don’t think you’re getting Betamax by buying a Prius or other gas-electric hybrid that automakers want to sell you as the move back from EV cars to hybrids, he says. You’re not caught in the middle of a technology advancement with nowhere to go if your Prius breaks down. 

You’re just part of the early adoption phase of hybrid technology that may change in 10 years to fuel cells, Shanahan says. 

“Technology is never going to be static,” he says. “There’s always a furious development cycle.”