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California and Tesla No Longer Best Friends?

Stocks in this article: TSLA TM HMC GM NSANY

In any case, the comparison is this: Driving at 75 miles per hour, you should be able to go close to 300 miles in one of these hydrogen fuel-cell cars. In a Tesla Model S, at that speed, depending on temperature and age of car, you might be closer to 200 miles.

The hydrogen car refuels 300 miles in three to eight minutes, whereas the Tesla can often get you 150 miles in less than 30 minutes. In the future, you might also have the opportunity to swap your battery in as little as two minutes, which would then take you at least 200 miles and cost $80 (40 cents per mile). The cost of hydrogen has not yet been set, but unlimited use is included with Hyundai's $500/month lease.

It is important to understand that a hydrogen fuel-cell car is also an electric car. The hydrogen tanks and fuel cell replace the battery. Conceptually, the electric motor powering the wheels would be the same in both kinds of cars.

At least the first few hydrogen fuel-cell cars are not meant to compete with a Tesla in terms of sports car performance. They are, at best, comparable with a Nissan Leaf in terms of performance (0-60 MPH in close to 10 seconds). One advantage of the hydrogen car is cold weather performance, which should be much better than a battery car.

It shouldn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that we could see a hybrid hydrogen-battery car, sort of like a Chevrolet Volt except a fuel cell provides the range extender instead of a regular gasoline internal combustion engine. That kind of car would go, say, 30 to 40 miles on battery power and then another 300 miles on hydrogen. It seems like an obvious solution.

The message here is this: To date, Tesla has been the legislative darling in the auto industry, getting the biggest advantages at the expense of the competition. This now changes in the form of -- among other things -- $200 million of taxpayer money to build hydrogen fueling stations in California.

How this will play out over time is anyone's guess. Battery-electric cars are proven and customers tend to love them. Hydrogen fuel-cell cars look great on paper, and I have driven prototypes over the last couple of years. They drive similar to a modest electric car such as a Nissan Leaf.

Will the consumer want them? It is a big unknown.

The main advantages of fuel-cell hydrogen cars over battery-electric cars are:

  1. Fast refueling -- 300 miles in three to eight minutes.
  2. Excellent cold weather performance.
  3. The new subsidy darling status in California.

The hydrogen fuel-cell cars could cost perhaps $30,000 to $40,000 in 2015 and the first one in 2014 leases for $500 per month including unlimited fuel. Together with a $200 million freebie from the California taxpayer paying for 100 hydrogen fueling stations, it may prove to be the most attractive consumer proposition for the mass market.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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