It’s hard to imagine a time of more technological change in the car industry – except when Henry Ford built a car rather than a faster horse. The future is self-driving cars, fuel cells, electric charging stations and even “mobility as a service”, which means the nature of driving has to change.
One of these innovations, still in its early stages, is using hydrogen for fuel. Hydrogen is great for fuelling balloons, but is it safe and effective for your vehicle?
Hydrogen v Electricity
The idea of hydrogen vehicles is similar to electric vehicles (EVs) but different.
You charge a battery electric vehicle by plugging it straight into an electricity source. This means there is no need for another process. An electric vehicle takes about an hour to charge while a hydrogen car takes 3-5 minutes to be refilled – for exactly the same driving range.
A hydrogen fuel cell vehicle requires high pressure hydrogen that passes through the “fuel-cell stack” to create electricity. This then powers the battery and electric motor. While the common way to commercially create hydrogen is to burn fossil fuels, the only waste products from a hydrogen car is water.
Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes-Benz have already developed fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) powered by hydrogen.
This one is shiny new – just revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. The NEXO is an SUV and replaces the ix35 Fuel Cell. It’s a better model for driving, with 20% more power and 135 miles more range (up to 800 miles) than the ix35. This is not a variant on any existing Hyundai and perches proudly at the top of Hyundai’s expanding range of electrified cars. Not only does it have all kinds of assisted driving features, you can refuel it in only 5 minutes.
Of course, only selected market will be able to buy it now but it should arrive in the UK by the beginning of 2019. Not too long to wait.
Toyota developed the Mirai, a word that means “future” in Japanese. It may well be the vehicle, like the Prius with EVs, that pushes hydrogen more into the mainstream. It has dual 60 litre hydrogen tanks behind and under the rear seat and refuelling takes only 3-5 minutes. Unfortunately, it costs around £66,000, which will keep most of us out of the picture for quite a while. Businesses can still hire a Mirai on a contract basis, including fuel and maintenance costs.
Toyota and Hyundai will initially have to rely on the early adopters – those eager people who are so excited by new technology they will pay a lot to be seen with it.
What’s it like to drive one?
Hydrogen vehicles, like electric vehicles, are very quiet because they don’t need an engine. Imagine the streets filled with sleek vehicles quietly nosing along with no sound. There are no gears either, so all you need to decide is how much braking to do. FCEVs carry a battery, so you don’t have to wait for the fuel cell to provide an electric charge.
The biggest challenge at the moment is having somewhere to refuel. Toyota says it costs a healthy $US2.3 million to build a medium retail refuelling station in the US or in Europe. Meanwhile, in the UK, there are less than half a dozen refilling stations. While owners of standard EVs can plug into a socket at home, hydrogen refueling units are not standard items in anybody’s garage.
Future of hydrogen
BMW, Daimler, Honda, Hyundai and Toyota make up a committee with some other multinationals, dubbed the Hydrogen Council. The Council wants to push hydrogen as a fuel source, not just for vehicles, but for infrastructure and industry. So far, they are spending nearly $2 billion each year to that end.
Chairman of Mercedes-Daimler recently made the somewhat audacious claim that hydrogen fuel cell technology is losing relevance as batteries become more effective. He believes hydrogen may ultimately be more suitable for trucks because of their need for long range driving. Even so, Mercedes will launch a few fuel cell vehicles during 2018.
Currently, more effort is going into making and developing EVs and hybrids than hydrogen FCEVs.
We have the usual conundrum: there needs to be more infrastructure to push the cost down but, without these cars, there is no need for infrastructure. Whoever spends the money to create the infrastructure will have the most influence on how the industry develops. It will be interesting to see which fuel source wins, if any.
Written by James Kemp. Website: