Alternative drives: Is a hydrogen car really better?

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Reading time: 7 Minutes
Hydrogen car engine

The future belongs to alternative drives - hardly anyone would dispute this statement. But which drive will herald the change in mobility? Will it be the pure electric motor, LPG or natural gas, hydrogen cars or a mixture of all of these?

We have answered some questions about alternative drives for you!


Alternative drive systems are all technologies for powering vehicles that differ in their type of energy or design from the usual drive systems on the market. "Standard" here means petrol and diesel engines, which together accounted for 92 percent of the 3.6 million new registrations last year according to the Federal Motor Transport Authority. However, the share of alternative drives has been steadily increasing since 2017.

The variety of alternative drive systems for cars is diverse and shows that the mobility revolution can only succeed through a mix of different drive technologies. The pure electric car is only one way into the future, albeit a particularly efficient one, as we will explain later in the text.

In addition to the purely electric drive with battery storage (so-called Battery Electric Vehicle, abbreviated BEV), mild hybridand plug-in hybrid engines (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle, abbreviated PHEV), fuel cell vehicles with hydrogen or methanol (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle, abbreviated FCEV), the natural gas vehicle (Compressed Natural Gas vehicle, abbreviated CNG vehicle) or models powered by LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas, abbreviated LPG) also belong to the alternative drives.
Hydrogen cars with combustion engines, ethanol fuels or biodiesel are also considered "alternative", but are not considered in this article.

Electric car (BEV) In Germany, this generally refers to a vehicle that is powered exclusively by an electrical energy source. This is accompanied by storage of the electrical energy in a battery.
Mild hybrid (BAHV) In a mild hybrid drive, the petrol or diesel engine is supported by a smaller electric motor to recover braking energy and thus reduce consumption by up to 15 percent. The hybrid cannot be charged from the mains.
Plug-in Hybrid (PHEV) Plug-in hybrid drives combine a petrol or diesel engine with an electric motor and a small battery. The electric drive can be charged from the mains. This is intended to reduce consumption, and smaller distances can also be covered purely electrically.
Fuel cell (FCEV) Fuel cell vehicles are in principle also electric cars, but the electrical energy is converted from hydrogen or methanol. The vehicles have to be refuelled at special filling stations, but this is considerably faster than with a purely electrically powered vehicle.
Natural gas vehicle (CNG) CNG vehicles are powered by a petrol or diesel engine, but instead of petrol or diesel, natural gas is refuelled. This is cheaper and involves around 20 percent less emissions. There are currently 837 CNG filling stations in Germany, 29 of which are in Saxony.
LPG vehicle LPG is an alternative fuel for petrol engines and can be converted individually. Inexpensive LPG can be filled up at almost every second petrol station in Germany. Emissions are reduced by up to 15 percent.


The advantages and disadvantages of the individual drive types are as diverse as the alternative drives. However, it is not only the drive technologies that are decisive, but also the supply of the energy source required in each case. This can vary greatly from region to region or even from individual to individual.

The biggest advantage and purely electrically driven vehicles and cars with fuel cells might be the local emissions, which are either non-existent or only produced as harmless water vapour. So when it comes to the air in the city, these types of drive are a real winner. However, at the end of the day, BEV's are considerably more efficient because losses occur when hydrogen is converted into electricity and energy is emitted into the environment without powering the vehicle. In addition, hydrogen is currently mainly produced from fossil sources, so hydrogen cars do not score in terms of their energy source.

On the other hand, the production of accumulators or batteries for purely electric vehicles is equally less than ideal - the considerable emissions and the pollution of mining areas around the world are criticised for BEVs. The high costs must be taken into account when comparing the drives in terms of their eco-balance; nevertheless, the bottom line is that in a CO2 comparison the electric car wins out over the conventional and other alternative drives, as this study by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety shows, for example. However, the supply of fast-charging stations in Germany that enable rapid charging with electricity is still inadequate. This is where other drives such as fuel cells, CNG or LPG, which have to be refuelled "normally", score points.

So are plug-in hybrids or mild hybrids the solution? Quite a few think that these combine not the advantages but the disadvantages of the respective drives. A mild hybrid reduces consumption, but cannot be operated purely electrically. Vehicles with plug-in hybrid drives are often considerably heavier and offer less interior space, for example in terms of luggage compartment volume.


In a direct comparison between a combustion engine and a purely electric vehicle, the e-car can score after about 50,000 to 150,000 kilometres, depending on the calculation - taking into account a rather poor eco-balance for production and a coal-dominated electricity mix, as is currently still the case in Germany. However, these values are improving continuously: ever cleaner production and ever "greener" electricity in Germany are making electric vehicles steadily more sustainable. The best balance is when you generate your own electricity, e.g. via a photovoltaic system for "refuelling".

But what about other drive systems? In a direct comparison of current models with different drives by the ADAC, a plug-in hybrid won - actually surprisingly - in the CO2 balance. So a clever mix of electricity and combustion engine can make sense - at least if your car doesn't have to be a SUV weighing tons.

Hydrogen car contribution graph: CO2 emissions per vehicle

LPG, on the other hand, is only slightly better than a petrol engine in terms of emissions, but even slightly worse than a diesel. A natural gas drive (CNG) has up to 25 percent better emission values than a vehicle with a petrol engine and also performs better than a diesel or mild hybrid drive. However, being able to refuel the vehicle can be a practical problem: There are currently only 837 CNG filling stations in Germany, 29 of which are in Saxony. By comparison, diesel or petrol can be filled up at 14,118 filling stations in Germany.

Only fuel cell vehicles with electric drive and hydrogen produced from renewable sources come close to the eco-balance of an electric car. However, as this is still a niche product and it is not possible to fill up explicitly with "bio-hydrogen", this drive system is still rather theoretical, as this comparison by the ADAC also shows.

Graphic CO2 emissions per alternative drive


The right alternative drive depends on the driver's own driving style. As city runabouts, for example for delivery services, as taxis or care services, electric cars can play out their advantages and still always get to a power socket promptly. Depending on the current electricity price, the tax benefits and the lower maintenance costs, an electric car also scores financially in this type of application.

CNG can be interesting for frequent and long-distance drivers who want to reduce their emissions but still don't want to give up the convenience of being able to fill up quickly. But then you have to plan in advance when and where it can be refuelled. The same applies to fuel cell vehicles, although with currently 87 hydrogen filling stations in Germany, it looks much lonelier for the friends of this drive technology.

For many drivers, a car with a plug-in hybrid drive is therefore also attractive. The costs for the vehicle are mostly higher, but the legislator has also created attractive purchase premiums and tax advantages for these models. As long as you can charge the car at work or cheaply at home, everyday short trips, for example to the office or the supermarket, are also possible fully electrically. On a business trip or on the way to a holiday, the combustion engine is responsible. Together, the costs for fuel and energy can also be reduced so that the initial additional costs can be amortised.


As already outlined, the choice of the right alternative drive depends on various factors, which can also be quite individual. Depending on what is most important to you yourself, you can shortlist different drive paths.

Is environmentally conscious mobility particularly close to your heart?
Then you should choose an electric or fuel cell vehicle.

Are you looking for a way to reduce the cost of long journeys?
Then a mild hybrid car or a car or natural gas vehicle would be worth considering - the lower emissions are then a pleasant side effect. In addition, it is not necessary to give up the advantages of fast refuelling.

Or are you looking for the best of both worlds and are prepared to dig a little deeper into your pocket to begin with?
Then choose a plug-in hybrid. With this and with a BEV, however, you should definitely check in advance where you can charge your new car cheaply - as long as this is not yet possible without a cable.

OUR CONCLUSION on alternative drive systems and hydrogen cars

Alternative routes are there to be circumvented. Problems such as the lack of coverage with charging or refuelling facilities are directly dependent on the number of new registrations in the alternative segments. However, a lot is developing here, just as with alternative drive technologies in general. One thing is certain: climate-friendly drives need the energy turnaround, as the ADAC has also recognised. According to Joanneum Research, this should reduce the CO2 equivalent from 580 g/kWh to 435 and finally 285 grams per kilowatt hour from 2019 to 2030 by 2050. Research is being conducted on this in Saxony and around the world, and there is a race to see which drive system could ultimately prevail. Hydrogen cars are one participant in this competition. In the future, however, the drive mix will be decisive, depending on the personal needs of the drivers.

If you are a small or medium-sized company in Saxony and are interested in the promotion of electric cars and charging stations, you will find a practical help in our Checklist for electric car subsidies practical help for you to print out. In our comprehensive white paper, which you can download free of charge, you will also find a wealth of information on the charging infrastructure and best practices from Saxony. Do you have questions or a topic idea? Then feel free to send us an email at

A contribution by Marcel Duparré

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