Hydrogen is the most abundant element in our universe and hydrogen-powered vehicles produce only a single emission: water. It’s no wonder a handful automakers have touted it as the next-step in “sustainable” transportation, because it looks great upon a cursory examination. But it hasn’t held up under increased scrutiny and numerous manufacturers have been highly critical of fuel cell cars.
Earlier this year, Jaguar Land Rover’s technical design director called hydrogen-powered vehicles a disaster in practical efficiency. Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk went even further, calling the technology “incredibly dumb.” More recently, VW Group also hinted that it thought there wasn’t going to be much of a future for fuel cells. Matthias Mueller’s address at the Frankfurt Auto Show was heavy on electrification and light on hydrogen, with Audi spearheading the technology.
Although, if president of Audi of America Scott Keogh is to be believed, it looks to be a rather dull spear they are using.
“The worst thing you can do is kind of half bake electric, then go off on another science project with fuel cells, then go running to another science project,” Keogh told Automotive News at the show.
Post dieselgate, Volkswagen Group has billions wrapped up in developing electric vehicles, using its Electrify America subsidiary to improve the EV infrastructure in the United States, and collaborating with other automakers to do the same in Europe.
After, and only after, VW has established itself as an electrified dynamo will it bother pursing hydrogen fuel cells with any earnestness. Keogh estimated that Audi would have “limited fleets” of hydrogen-powered test vehicles on the road within five years and would consider vehicles for consumer use sometime after that.
However, Toyota, Hyundai, and Honda are pursing hydrogen as a potentially viable energy source while other automakers are snubbing it. So what’s the problem?
Jaguar Land Rover’s technical design director Wolfgang Ziebart described the issue as one of practical efficiency. Hydrogen-powered cars are not yet a green solution and extracting their energy source, abundant as it may be, requires quite a bit of energy. The processed hydrogen is then stored, shipped, and consumed by vehicles that are electrically driven.
“You end up with a well to wheel efficiency of roughly 30 percent for hydrogen, as opposed to more or less well to wheel 70 percent efficiency for a battery electric vehicle,” explained Ziebart. “So the efficiency of putting the electric energy directly into a battery is about twice as high as the efficiency of producing and using hydrogen.”
“If there was a strong reason to have a hydrogen infrastructure, then I think it would be set up, but with this disastrous well-to-wheel relationship, it doesn’t just make sense,” he concluded.
Musk would agree. He has condemned hydrogen fuel cell technology as wasteful in the past, going so far as to suggest other gasses would be easier to live with. “If you’re going to pick an energy storage mechanism, hydrogen is an incredibly dumb one to pick — you should just pick methane, that’s much much easier, or propane,” he said.
With a vested interest in battery-electric vehicles, Musk would obviously prefer drivers get their car’s energy via wires. But, he seems particularly uncharitable toward a hydrogen-based alternative. As compressible gasses go, he says it’s just about the worst one.
There also isn’t much of an infrastructure for hydrogen fueling outside of Pacific Asia. While some areas of Europe and the United States (California, mainly) have small pockets of them, they don’t extend beyond urban centers. That would make it impossible for any hydrogen-powered vehicle to leave the confines of their home territory. Meanwhile, electric charging stations are cropping up everywhere and a carefully plotted course means a BEV would eventually make it across the entire continent.
The only advantage the hydrogen car would have is the time it takes to “refuel.” While a battery-powered car needs hours upon hours to recharge via a standard outlet, even a fast charging station could leave you immobilized for over an hour. Comparatively, gassing up your ride with hydrogen would only take a few minutes to achieve the same range. But you’re not going to find any H-Stations on a road trip and the gas doesn’t come trickling out of the walls of every home that paid its gas bill that month.
Audi says, even after it starts dabbling with hydrogen-powered test vehicles, it won’t be pursuing Honda or Toyota’s plans to help establish an infrastructure to fuel them. It’s far more interested in backing VW Group’s battery-powered cars.
“Every time another manufacturer starts to lean more on EVs and throw more resources at them, it pushes the momentum more towards that solution,” explained Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book.
Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, and Hyundai have all scaled down their hydrogen-fueled dreams of late. Chevrolet’s Bolt has proven GM knows what its doing with electrification and Mercedes-Benz has promised a slew of mild-hybrids in the years to come. Hyundai, which looked poised to follow Toyota and Honda, may have developed the Tucson Fuel Cell — but has stated it will be gradually abandoning the technology to focus on battery power.
[Image: Daimler AG]