Tesla's brand-sex appeal overshadowing hydrogen fuel cell technology's progress?

Tesla's brand-sex appeal overshadowing hydrogen fuel cell technology's progress?
Tesla is fast becoming the Donald Trump of the car world. It is kingpin among electric car makers; in fact, it holds the media-coverage cards among nearly all alternative-fuel car producers.

Just last month, many magazines carried the news that the latest addition, the Tesla Model 3, their compact exec-class car to rival the likes of BMW’s 3-Series, is “still running on schedule”. That’s news? But anything with “Tesla” in the headline sucks in an audience. 

The Times reported last month that Trump has had almost $2bn of free media coverage, compared with an advertising spend of just $10m - by far the smallest of any front-runner. So contentious are his politics that all cameras are on him, his rivals floundering in a no-man’s land of the much-feared media black hole.

And so we have Tesla, led by the media-friendly, contentious, enigmatic, twice-married and twice-divorced, young, handsome, family-man, space-pioneering Elon Musk. What’s not to like if you’re a hungry reporter?

Thus we all await the Model 3, not available until next year, but with one car mag excitedly reporting last week: “the update at least shows us one more colour which is likely to be available - a dark blue which we’ve not seen before”. Seriously?

And while the circus follows the bright lights around town, mass-market manufacturers are solidly chugging through the R&D budgets put aside for that other great hope… hydrogen fuel cells.

Not a very sexy proposition, that. Fuel cells are a little more complicated to explain than electric motors, and no-one with a wacky name on a Hyperloop mission is building one.

But I drove both Toyota’s and Hyundai’s efforts recently, and it seems to me that this is where the future really lies, which is quite a sexy prospect, surely? 

Drive a Tesla, and you feel a little quirky, a little special, but things feel not quite right (we’ll ignore the Tesla S lumbar support that did my back in on a drive to Amsterdam). The effort required to add battery charge leaves you feeling a bit travel sick. It’s a heavy, big car. It feels of the future, but not quite there yet.

And then you have the Toyota Mirai, which feels exactly how any old car feels to drive, except there’s just water coming out of the tailpipe.

That’s a very, very clever thing: to make the future feel like the present. Hyundai’s ix35 Fuel Cell, which I drove as part of a world record challenge to set the longest continuous mileage in a fuel-cell vehicle, accomplishes exactly the same feat of engineering - it looks like a car, and it behaves like a car. It even refuels like a car, the hydrogen going in at the same speed.

Yes, there are infrastructure issues for a hydrogen highway and we’re not there yet, but spare a thought please, among all the sparkling Tesla headlines, for the real foot-soldiers in this war.