Avoiding Tesla? Some automakers are hedging their bets with hydrogen.

Posted on October 14, 2021 by Charles Morris

Despite what you may read in the mainstream media, when it comes to the choice between battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell powertrains, the science is pretty clear: hydrogen fuel cells may be the technology of choice for some industrial processes, and/or for hard-to-electrify transport segments such as ocean shipping and aviation, but they aren’t suitable for passenger vehicles. As an energy storage medium, H2 is far less efficient than batteries (22% well-to-wheels, compared to 73%, by one analysis), and delivering it would require building a vast new infrastructure. The advantages of fuel cell vehicles—longer range and fast fueling times—are rapidly being eroded by improving battery and charging technology. 

Above: BMW's i Hydrogen Fuel Cell X5 (Flickr: Marco Verch / CC by 2.0

The cherry on the sundae is that the vast majority of hydrogen now being produced is “grey” hydrogen, which is made from fossil fuels and generates significant carbon emissions.

With the notable exceptions of Toyota, Hyundai and BMW, most automakers have abandoned fuel cells for passenger cars: Honda threw in the towel in 2019, and GM and Mercedes-Benz bowed out in 2020 (Daimler continues to develop fuel cells for heavy-duty vehicles). Also in 2020, Volkswagen released an article explaining in detail why batteries area a superior choice. Later in 2020, VW firmly rebutted a trade group’s call for more hydrogen cars and trucks, calling it “nonsensical.”

“A hydrogen car requires energy from three or four times as many windmills than an electric vehicle needs for the same distance, making it three to four times as expensive to travel the same distance,” said VW Group CEO Herbert Diess. “That’s why more and more manufacturers are moving away from fuel cells.”

So, why are a few automakers still pouring money down the hydrogen hole? As Nick Carey, writing in Reuters, explains, “They are hedging their bets, calculating that a change in political winds could shift the balance towards hydrogen.”

Most of the hydrogen hype emanates from fossil fuel companies, and their voices are heard loud and clear in the halls of political power. Pols in Germany and the UK have already committed substantial investments to hydrogen tech, and President Biden’s infrastructure plan also includes funding for the light gas. To politicians of all political stripes, hydrogen may seem like an attractive compromise—a way to keep the oil and gas (and the campaign cash) flowing while making it sound like they’re taking steps to reduce carbon emissions.

Automakers know as well as anyone how often politics and/or fashion can win out over science, and they have a long history of keeping all technological options alive in their “skunk works.”

Above: A look at which traditional automakers continue to cling to hydrogen fuel cells (YouTube: Reuters)

BMW has developed a prototype hydrogen car based on its X5 SUV, a project partly funded by the German government. The carmaker plans to build a test fleet of 100 cars in 2022, and could have a model ready for the market by 2030.

“Whether this (technology) is driven by politics or demand, we will be ready with a product,” BMW VP Jürgen Guldner, who heads the company’s fuel cell car program, told Reuters.

Other automakers that have generally disavowed hydrogen are keeping their options open. A spokesperson for Audi, a member of the hydrogen-averse Volkswagen Group, told Reuters it has a team of 100 engineers working on fuel cells, and has built a few prototype cars. A source from Mercedes told Reuters that the company could easily revive its shelved GLC F-CELL, a fuel cell-powered SUV, if the European Commission or a future German government increases support for hydrogen cars.

Meanwhile, in China, several automakers are working on fuel cell cars, including Great Wall Motor, which plans to develop hydrogen-powered SUVs, according to Reuters.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, if you’re part of the “hydrogen is marching on” crowd), automakers’ fuel cell feats are pretty low-key in comparison to their plug-in pursuits. The BMW Group is the world’s fifth-biggest seller of plug-in vehicles, and Hyundai is number seven (according to EV-Volumes). Even apostate Toyota sells far more plug-in powertrains than fuel cells, and its engineers are quietly working on a number of EV projects.

BMW’s Guldner acknowledges that fuel cells are currently too expensive to be viable for consumer vehicles. He tells Reuters that hydrogen-mobiles will be “complementary” to BMW’s battery-electric models. “When the future is zero emissions, we believe having two answers is better than one.”

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Written by: Charles Morris; Source: Reuters

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