Why America Must Build the Car That Overtakes a Tesla

What brand is your TV? Sony, perhaps? Panasonic? LG? Samsung? What it certainly won't be is an American brand, such as GE or ITT. We lost the battle for television sets, and most other consumer electronics, almost before it started.

In hindsight it seems strange that the world's largest economy cannot muster a single top-tier TV maker. But that's the thing about markets: make a big enough bet early on and you can end up ruling the world.

We didn't bet big enough on TVs, and we nearly lost the game in other sectors, too. Witness the auto sector. An American, Henry Ford, launched the industry as we know it, and for decades Detroit was synonymous with car making.

But today the world's largest auto player is Toyota of Japan, and at the beginning of the year not a single American name was among the top five. Worse still, we could be about to miss out on the next big auto revolution.

We're talking about the move from gas-guzzlers to carbon-free cars, of course. At first sight, this is a revolution where America is firmly in the lead.

As of October, Palo Alto-based Tesla was leading American sales of plug-in vehicles in 2015 by a wide margin, having sold 18,900 Model S sedans against second-player Nissan's 14,868 LEAFs.

Not only that, but three of the five top-selling plug-in models were American and more than half the plug-ins sold so far this year have been from U.S. manufacturers. This is an achievement every American should be proud of.

However, you would be wrong if you thought America has sewn up the clean-energy auto market. The plug-in is just one of a number of ways of weaning cars off gas. And right now it's not even certain batteries are the best way forward.

The Tesla Model S 85D, which has the top range of any commercially available electric vehicle, can manage up to 270 miles on a single charge. But that's still far below the 575 miles of highway you could eat up on a full tank in a Ford F-150, America's favorite car.

That means electrics are hardly the right fit for a massive nation such as America.

And there's another thing: while we would be right to celebrate bringing ground-breaking auto products such as the Tesla Model S, Chevrolet Volt or Ford Fusion Energi to market, the fact remains that the batteries for these vehicles come from foreign vendors such as Panasonic.

Let's face it. Without taking credit away from Tesla's Elon Musk and other visionary Americans changing the face of the auto industry, the plug-in vehicle market is still in its early stages and might not be the answer for carbon-free cars--or a boon for U.S. manufacturing.

In addition, the renewable energy produced to power electric vehicles may be abundant, but how can it be stored effectively? Using solar as an example, energy is produced during peak hours, which is of course when it's sunny during the day.

However, when people return home to their televisions, lights, and other uses of electricity, the grid can no longer keep up, so supply falls back on costly utility providers that burn fossil fuels. That's why energy storage is an important and complex aspect of this discussion.

So what's the alternative? The most promising option, and one that is already attracting attention from a few in-the-know lawmakers, is hydrogen. You're probably aware of this element from its role in water, weather balloons, and bombs.

What you may not know is it also has the largest energy content of any fuel, which can be used, via a device called a fuel cell, to power anything from cars to the electricity grid.

Perhaps the main reason why hydrogen is not already used more often is because making the stuff takes quite a lot of energy itself.

But if you have energy to spare, for example because your wind farms are churning out more power than you can use, then it makes a lot of sense to store it as hydrogen. This energy can power our vehicles, homes, and businesses. And it is 100 percent made in USA.

At present, most hydrogen is made from breaking down fossil fuels such as natural gas, so it cannot claim to be truly carbon free. But American companies have developed ways of making hydrogen from sunlight and water. All that's missing is a favorable market for commercialization.

It is worth noting that the longest zero-emissions vehicle range belongs to a fuel-cell car, not a battery-based vehicle. Currently that model is not an American car, but a Toyota.

Toyota is hedging its bets when it comes to zero-emissions vehicles; while its Prius was the top-selling hybrid worldwide in 2014, the Japanese carmaker has turned its back on battery-only cars and is betting on hydrogen fuel cells instead.

Its futuristic Mirai fuel-cell sedan went on the market this year after being unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show last November. It is a direct rival to Tesla's Model S. But where's the American version?

It's important to point out that hydrogen is not just potentially important for the automotive sector, but also for energy storage. Hydrogen's ability to store energy well is one of the reasons many are bullish on its future.

Major brands from big-box retailers such as Walmart and Ace Hardware to aircraft manufacturers such as Airbus are implementing hydrogen storage technologies from American companies such as Plug Power and Ballard Power Systems.

The American government is now leading the way with de-carbonization and batteries are certainly part of the way forward. But there is more than one horse in the race to a low-carbon future. America should be backing all of them.