Elon Musk has taken his share of hits in the media for his Twitter rants and behavior that is just plain weird for a CEO. We don't know how Tesla Inc. is going to fare now that competition from Jaguar, Audi and Mercedes is here or soon will be.
If Tesla doesn't make it because of mismanagement and misbehavior by Musk, and if the company goes down in flames like DeLorean, Bricklin and Tucker, there is at least one Musk legacy that is undeniably brilliant: Tesla's nationwide network of Supercharger charging stations.
Tesla's Supercharger network, I think, is the template for automakers gearing up to launch fuel cell vehicles. Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and General Motors are on the cutting edge of fuel cell technology, with some vehicles already available for lease and new, more efficient fuel cell stacks -- the component that creates electricity from gaseous hydrogen -- on the way.
Musk answered the chicken-and-egg question with electric vehicles by investing more than $1 billion in a nationwide charging network specifically for Tesla cars. He short-circuited drivers' biggest fear of owning an EV: range anxiety.
That same strategy will be necessary for fuel cell vehicles to have wide appeal. Fuel cells, you'll recall, are EVs. But instead of storing electricity in a battery pack that weighs hundreds of pounds, electricity is produced from gaseous hydrogen stored on the vehicle under high pressure. A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle can be refilled in minutes, just like a gasoline- or diesel-powered vehicle -- and the short time to refill the hydrogen tank is one of the key advantages fuel cell vehicles have over battery-powered EVs.
California leads the nation in the number of fuel cell filling stations, many built by FirstElement Fuel Inc., a company headed by auto industry veteran Joel Ewanick. He agrees a Tesla-like nationwide network of hydrogen fueling stations could help reduce the time it will take for fuel cell vehicles to become economically viable to manufacture.
"All the car companies are trying to find a path to [production of] 30,000 cars. That's where you start to see real efficiencies in your production, parts and suppliers. Anything below that, it's a challenge to make these cars at a reasonable price. We are getting to that tipping point in 2020 and 2021," Ewanick said.