See more of the story

Many Saturdays, amateur photographer Tadashi Ogitsu drives from his home in San Francisco to Yosemite National Park to attempt the perfect shot, timing his arrival to the golden hour before sunset.

He wanted an electric vehicle to lessen the environmental impact, but he couldn't find one with the range he needed. So he opted for a Honda Clarity, a hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle that allows him make the 320-mile round on a single tank of fuel.

"I wouldn't have any chance using battery-electric" said Ogitsu, who works as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "There is no flexibility."

Ogitsu is one of the 8,000 or so early adopters of hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicles, guinea pigs in an experiment by automakers, industry boosters and California officials to power an emissions-free driving future by turning to the universe's most-abundant element.

The cars have electric motors, but are fueled with hydrogen in a style more like their gasoline-powered counterparts. The hydrogen mixes with oxygen to create electricity. The only byproduct is water, which exits the car via the tailpipe.

The vehicles come with a hefty $60,000 price tag. To lessen the financial blow, as part of the experiment, the state of California is offering up to $10,000 in tax savings and a $15,000 fuel card, good for about three years of free hydrogen fuel.

Hydrogen-fueled cars have long lagged behind their battery-electric counterparts in adoption, a gap that they appear increasingly unlikely to overcome. While there were 58 public and private hydrogen stations in the country in 2012, the number had grown to only 61 by the end of 2019. And the vast majority of those — 44 of them — are in California. As that state added stations, other states such as New York saw their hydrogen pumps close.

"What challenges fuel-cell technology faced 10 years ago have been compounded by the increased adoption of pure electric vehicles over the past 10 years," said Karl Brauer, an auto industry analyst who is the executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk has blasted the technology as "mind-bogglingly stupid," referring to the components as "fool cells."

Stepping up efforts

Japanese competitors are doubling down in a renewed effort to persuade drivers in California, Hawaii and East Asia to make the jump to hydrogen. Toyota is increasing its production of its Mirai fuel-cell car to 10 times its current output for the 2021 model year. Honda and Hyundai are offering their own fuel-cell models to lure buyers in California.

The automakers say the fuel-cell bet represents an investment in democratizing electric vehicles.

"To put it bluntly, it's too early to favor any single technology because people continue to want choice," said Stephen Ellis, manager of fuel-cell vehicle marketing at Honda's American division. "One of the things we're learning is, for example, multiunit dwellings don't lend themselves to having lots of charging opportunities for all the tenants in the building. That's one example where fuel cell can work extremely well."

Still, the electric cars dominate their fuel cell competitors.

"I think I would say that fuel cell is probably 10 years behind the battery," said Tyson Eckerle, a fuel-cell booster who serves as deputy director of zero emission vehicle market development in California's Office of Business and Economic Development.

"I mean, you've seen a proliferation of battery cars and it's super exciting, right?" he said. "The challenge will be now bridging fuel-cell vehicles from that early adopter into the mass market."