Alternative Car Fuel Sources - What Will Drive us in 100 Years?

From hydrogen fuel cells to electric batteries, new fuel sources for today’s vehicles have emerged at an amazing pace over the last 10 years.

car fuel sources

Over the last decade, electric cars have evolved from unreliable experiments into luxurious vehicles. © StockMedia

With support in the form of the Hydrogen Fuel Initiative from the US government, a growing electric car industry driven forward by companies like Tesla and Toyota, the future of automotive fuel sources is shaping up to be very interesting.

In this blog post, we’ll look at two of the most promising alternative fuel sources for cars – hydrogen fuel cells and electricity – to see which has the best combination of efficiency, cost and staying power to emerge as the fuel source of tomorrow.

How were cars fuelled 100 years ago?

Aside from sleeker aerodynamics and interior comforts, today’s cars aren’t all that different from those of the early 20th century. They’re more powerful, much more comfortable and have better handling, but under the hood not much is different.

They’re still powered by petrol or diesel – two fossil fuels that, despite producing a massive amount of power at a relatively low cost – are becoming more expensive on a yearly basis and contribute to pollution and climate change.

With electric cars finally becoming mainstream, the last 10 years have produced as much change in automotive fuel sources as the 90 years that preceded them. Which of the last decade’s innovations will continue to power our cars in 100 years?

The development of electric vehicles

Over the last two decades, electric vehicles have grown from a niche scientific field into a major industry. Toyota’s iconic Prius hybrid passed 3.8 million sales in June 2013, signalling that hybrid vehicles are very much here to stay.

Other manufacturers, from Porsche to Lexus, have added hybrid offerings to their vehicle ranges. Porsche’s ultra-powerful 918 sports car comes with an accessory that just a decade ago would have resulted in blank stares: a power cord.

cat fuel sources

Kris Wilson / CC 2.0

Bridging the gap between petrol-powered hybrids and fully electric vehicles has, up until now, been a major sticking point for car manufacturers. A range of issues, from performance to limited range, have made many electric cars impractical for drivers.

A recent survey of automotive industry insiders by KPMG showed that just 10% are confident that plug-in electrical vehicles will be the industry’s future. 85%, on the other hand, think that innovating traditional petrol-powered engines is more likely.

Despite a lack of confidence in most of the industry, some manufacturers have made an impression with their electric vehicles. California-based Tesla Motors became the first manufacturer to reach the top of the sales charts with its Model S luxury car.

The Model S solves many of the typical electrical car problems. Its range is 200 miles – enough for most drivers – and its interior feels more like that of a high-end Jaguar or Mercedes Benz than the utilitarian one many drivers associate with electric cars.

car fuel sources

David van der Mark / CC 2.0

Motoring journalist Quentin Willson believes that big change about the way cars are powered is looming on the horizon, and that electrical vehicles could lead the way:

“I've run several electric cars over the last couple of years and they work very well indeed - don't listen to the doubters. £2.00 fuel cost for 100 miles and a range of 100 between charges is a major incentive to EV use.

I've driven hydrogen fuel-cell cars and they're stunning too. This is new technology that's here and now and not laboratory pipe dreams.”

Given the innovations of companies like Tesla and Toyota, it’s likely we’ll see a huge number of 100% electric vehicles in the future. The low cost, growing infrastructure and consumer palatability all makes them a huge potential success story.

Blade Runner predicted flying cars in 2019 – a sign that even visionaries like Ridley Scott struggle to predict the future accurately. While flying cars may be more than a few decades away, it seems like electric cars could dominate the next century.

The future of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles

In early 2015, Toyota will launch its production first fuel car in Japan. The FCV is a stepping stone for Toyota and the Japanese government’s vision of a future that is dominated by hydrogen fuel cells.

The FCV is projected to cost about 7 million yen (just under £40,000) and launch in April of 2015. The car’s technology is remarkably impressive, but critics believe its impracticalities could prevent the car from catching on.

The Japanese government will subsidise the FCV by about 3 million yen, making the innovative car a more affordable option for motorists. But the car’s major issue isn’t price, but infrastructure – namely, the lack of it.

Shigeru Shoji, the President of the Volkswagen Group in Japan, believes that the car has limited potential because “building out [hydrogen fuel cell] infrastructure will be costly” and beyond the reach of many countries.

Even in Japan, which is projected to be the car’s largest market, hydrogen fuel cell infrastructure is limited. One of the biggest limits faced isn’t just the price of new fuel cell infrastructure, but the challenge of handling hydrogen itself.

While hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are some of the world’s least polluting, emitting only water vapour, they’re far from inexpensive. Other critics of hydrogen include Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk, who firmly believes electricity is a better option.

Hydrogen is expensive and dependent on infrastructure that’s yet to be built in the majority of the world, but that doesn’t mean it’s impractical as a fuel source. When Toyota first released the Prius in 1997, few expected it to be a commercial success.

While it’s hard to tell if hydrogen fuel cells will be the fuel source of the 21st century, Toyota’s track record at innovating successfully means that fuel cells are at least in with a serious shot at becoming this century’s dominant fuel source.

Which fuel source do you think will dominate the 21st century?

Since the launch of the Prius in 1997, hybrid and electrical cars have grown from niche products into top sellers. The release of the Tesla Model S and upcoming Toyota FCV show that big change is happening in the automotive industry.

From electricity to hydrogen fuel cells to ultra-efficient steam-powered cars, which fuel source do you think will dominate the 21st century?