In reality the affordable fuel cell is what is going to change things dramatically. Where refueling is not much different than what happens today. You will hook up a hose to your car and obtain the stuff that will make it go. It won’t be recharging (which takes hours) or replacing a depleted battery pack by popping in a charged one (which means you don’t know the quality of the battery you just installed). The batteries, perhaps along with ultracapacitors, will only be needed for acceleration and braking energy storage so there won’t be the need for so many of them.
The two biggest hurdles for fuel cell technology are making it industrialize-able (read affordable and reliable) and producing a fuel that is not based on hydrocarbons (i.e. not extracting hydrogen from fossil fuels). Truly, the hydrocarbons used to make hydrogen will be much more efficiently used than if burned in an ICE (an internal combustion engine is terribly inefficient). But the resulting efficiency improvement alone from fuel cells will be worth it even if we have to first use hydrocarbons to make it work. In the long run though, we will need to make hydrogen, or whatever we end up using, from something other than fossil fuels.
Then we can have a true electric vehicle that has the range and performance similar to what we have grown accustomed to with gasoline engines. That technology will be well accepted by the masses. At that point hybrids will either evolve to include fuel cells as an alternative to massive battery packs and charging systems—or become an interesting moment in our history.
David Swanson is principal engineer at STMicroelectronics.