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...that's according to an article entitled "Hybrid Cars Now, Fuel Cell Cars Later" in the August 13th issue of Science Magazine. (You may need to subscribe in order to be able to read the whole thing.) The article compared a regular internal combustion car, a hybrid car, and an advanced fuel cell (FC) vehicle which reforms gasoline to hydrogen fuel that then runs a fuel cell. The basic conclusion was that the hybrid car is about twice as efficient as the conventional one and that the FC car is likely to be only a tiny bit more efficient than the hybrid:

We compare the energy efficiency of hybrid and fuel cell vehicles as well as conventional internal combustion engines. Our analysis indicates that fuel cell vehicles using hydrogen from fossil fuels offer no significant energy efficiency advantage over hybrid vehicles operating in an urban drive cycle. We conclude that priority should be placed on hybrid vehicles by industry and government.

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Two advanced vehicle technologies that are being considered to replace the current fleet, at least partially, are hybrid vehicles and fuel cell (FC)–powered vehicles. Hybrid vehicles add a parallel direct electric drive train with motor and batteries to the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) drive train. This hybrid drive train permits significant reduction in idling losses and regeneration of braking losses that leads to greater efficiency and improved fuel economy. Hybrid technology is available now, although it represents less than 1% of new car sales. FC vehicles also operate by direct current electric drive. They use the high efficiency of electrochemical fuel cells to produce power from hydrogen. For the foreseeable future, hydrogen will come from fossil fuels by reforming natural gas or gasoline. FC vehicle technology is not here today, and commercialization will require a large investment in research, development, and infrastructure (4).

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The government FC research and development initiative is welcome, but it is not clear whether the effort to develop economic FC power plants for passenger cars will be successful. In parallel, we should place priority on deploying hybrid cars, beginning with today's automotive platforms and fuels. If the justification for federal support for research and development on fuel cells is reduction in imported oil and carbon dioxide emissions, then there is stronger justification for federal support for hybrid vehicles that will achieve similar results more quickly. Consideration should be given to expanding government support for research and development on generic advanced hybrid technology and extending hybrid vehicle tax credits.
Of course, fuel cells still offer higher eventual promise if the hydrogen to run them is produced by renewable, sustainable means...But, that is likely a long ways off.

In the meantime, us Prius owners can take pride on being on the forefront of an energy-efficient vehicle technology unlikely to be significantly surpassed for the foreseeable future!
 
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