Current Issue
This Month's Print Issue

Follow Fast Company

We’ll come to you.

Listening to battery enthusiasts wax poetic about the Tesla recently - - and seeing a few of them appearing on the streets of west Los Angeles - - I began thinking about the old Tony Curtis film "The Great Race" (remember every time he smiled, there was a shiny sparkle of superiority that gleamed from his teeth?). The roads and Holiday Inns have improved dramatically since the period depicted in the movie, but the idea of testing the claims of exciting new technology at the dawn of a new transportation age is very much the same. So let’s have a 21st Century "Great Race" and pit the Tesla against the other electric car on the market today, the Honda Clarity.

The Tesla is an electric sports car powered by batteries, while the Clarity is an electric sedan powered by hydrogen (a fuel cell converts the hydrogen to electricity). The range of each is rated by USEPA-approved testing at about 230 miles. The similarities end there however - - the Tesla is the fastest production car ever built at zero to 60 mph, giving the little hot rod a distinct advantage that would seem to make a race with a Clarity anything but "great". Or would it?

The venue for the race has already been set - - in late May, hydrogen enthusiasts are staging a road rally from BC to BC (Baja California to British Columbia), some 1400 miles up the west coast of North America. The idea is to demonstrate the commercialization of numerous hydrogen vehicles and the fueling stations along the way - - the "Hydrogen Highway" - - that will power the 2010 winter Olympics in Whistler near Vancouver. Already, clean electric buses powered by hydrogen fuel cells shuttle skiers around the resorts and slopes of the soon-to-be Olympic venue.

So all that’s needed for The New Great Race is to get a Tesla to participate. Surely the champions of battery technology, the undisputed 0-60 mph speed record-holders, would accept such a challenge. Well, given that they haven’t, let’s use a little math and imagination to stage The New Great Race anyway.

Acceleration speeds aside, highway laws in the four states/provinces along the route will limit competitors to something around 60 miles an hour. The 1400-mile distance means that each car will be driving for about 23.3 hours. At 230 miles range between fueling stops, the cars will also each stop 6 times. It takes me about 7 minutes to refuel my Honda Clarity, so add about 40 minutes for refueling and it will take Team Hydrogen about 24 hours to get from Tijuana to Vancouver.

Team Battery, however, will need four hours of charging time for each battery refueling according to the Tesla website. That’s 24 hours for charging stops in addition to the 23.3 hours of driving for a total of about 48 hours to cover the same distance. Oh well, The New Great Race isn’t so great after all.

In recent testimony before Congress, Energy Secretary Steven Chu acknowledged that for batteries to compete with the performance expected by consumers - - and delivered today by the Honda Clarity and other hydrogen vehicles - - it will take $2 billion of taxpayer subsidies (in the current energy bill for starters) and many years of R&D. The results are uncertain, as recent announcements by MIT researchers suggest - - their "breakthrough" in the lab with lithium batteries that dramatically decreased charging times is years from commercialization and doesn’t address the half ton of batteries you still need to lug around to power a car, which makes the battery-electric vehicle much less efficient than hydrogen-electric vehicles.

By the way, the hype around plug-in electric/gasoline hybrids is also deflated when examined in a distance-driving setting like this. That technology would either make all but 40 miles of the trip on gasoline (the range of the batteries) or stop 35 times to recharge, adding days to the trip.

While all of these technologies are important to help us kick our oil addiction and solve climate change, the clear winner of The New Great Race is definitely hydrogen. Cue the sparkling smile and roll the cameras!