Tellingly, Amazon recently bought a stake in Plug Power, which makes fuel cells. Amazon aims to use it to power forklifts in its warehouses. Other companies have also begun to invest in fuel cell tractor trailer trucks.
"Hydrogen may never make sense for consumer vehicles," as we conceive of them now, Brauer said. "But it does make sense for B2B and B2C vehicles that do community standardized shuttling and personal transportation services. And don't forget that a lot of people are saying that is where we are heading anyway. A lot of people are saying hydrogen fuel cells sync well with something else coming up fast: self-driving cars."
In particular, hydrogen cars could work just fine in fleets of shared, autonomous vehicles, which some have suggested could be a big part of the future of everyday transportation.
Just like their battery electric counterparts, hydrogen cars could be stored in facilities near fuel sources and then summoned when needed, reducing the need for a vast infrastructure of filling stations catering to individual owners. The quick refilling time would mean cars could be redeployed more quickly, keeping fleets smaller.
The technology has its flaws. Critics and skeptics say fuel cell cars require a lot of energy to harvest the hydrogen needed for the tanks. Right now, a fair amount of this hydrogen is a byproduct of natural gas extraction or similar processes that are far from carbon neutral.
To be fair, solar and wind energy could be used to extract hydrogen, said Malone. California already requires that 33 percent of the hydrogen used in the state must be harvested using renewable energy.
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are also complicated, and they take more time and money to build than an internal combustion engine. For example, the Financial Times reported it takes 72 minutes to build a Toyota Mirai, compared with just 60 seconds for a regular internal combustion engine car.
If Tesla's aggressive push into improving manufacturing efficiency bears fruit, the company has promised it could provide a blueprint for electric vehicle that could be tough for complicated alternatives to catch up with.
Then there is the matter of infrastructure. Building hydrogen fueling stations cost about five times what it takes to build a conventional gas station. Fuel cell cars need a refueling infrastructure, mechanics and a supply chain for parts.
Finally, fuel cell cars are still expensive, due in part to their complexity and the materials used. The Honda Clarity may offer more range than a $69,000-plus Tesla Model S for less money, but both the Clarity and Toyota's Mirai start at just below $60,000 without incentives.
But these kinds of challenges are hardly unique to fuel cells, said IHS' Lindsay. And companies have made some improvements, such as by reducing the size of certain components, as Toyota has done with its Mirai.
As with many clean energy technologies, California has taken the lead among U.S. states in developing a program to support hydrogen fuel cell cars. There are currently 27 refueling stations throughout the state, and there are plans to get to 100 by 2020.
From there, the state aims to multiply that by a factor of five or 10, Malone said.
For now, manufacturers can also earn more zero-emission vehicle credits in California for hydrogen cars, than they can with battery electrics, Lindsay said. "Right now, even in limited volume, they can earn a decent number of credits" by selling far fewer hydrogen cars than battery electrics, he said.