A decade behind EVs and twice the price – but hydrogen isn’t dead
Hydrogen retains its key advantage over battery EVs of quick refills for busy commercial vehicle operators
Large manufacturers tell Autocar there's still hope for fuel cell vehicles, as they invest in alternative to battery power
Two recently shared facts from senior car maker executives have revealed the size of the mountain that hydrogen fuel cell EVs have to climb before they can fall in alongside battery EVs.
Both are eye-opening but also from vehicle makers determined to make a go of the technology, not pure battery advocates putting the mockers on a potentially rivalling power source.
The first fact is from BMW Group CEO Oliver Zipse, who told journalists during the company’s third-quarter earnings briefing that FCEVs were “about 10 to 15 years behind the development of battery-driven cars”.
The second fact was from Xavier Peugeot, the head of Stellantis’s commercial vehicles unit, Pro One. who told Autocar that the true cost of the new FCEV version of the stalwart K-Zero midsize van range (think the Vauxhall Vivaro) was more than €100,000, compared with £27,985 for the diesel and £41,105 for the BEV.
Despite these seemingly massive hurdles, both BMW and Stellantis are putting investment into hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to battery power.
BMW is currently selling a very limited run of an BMW X5 SUV powered by a Toyota-sourced fuel cell, while Stellantis will next year build its FCEV vans on the same line as its BEV vans instead of converting them in a special shed.
“Hydrogen is the missing part of the puzzle,” said Zipse. “Our narrative has always been that there will have to be a drive form that is emission-free when there's no charging infrastructure.”
Despite being comprehensively outstripped by battery technology in terms of investment, development and sales, hydrogen technology retains its key advantage of theoretically quick refills for busy commercial vehicle operators and the potential for a refuelling infrastructure in remote areas beyond the reach of thick electricity cables.
Future investment in hydrogen and associated drivetrain technologies formed part of the UK government’s Advanced Manufacturing Plan, announced last week, which aims to install 10GW of low-carbon hydrogen production capacity by 2030, half of which will be ‘green’ hydrogen (produced by renewable energy, rather than created from gas with the carbon captured).
The government reckons there are now around 200 companies working on hydrogen and fuel cell technologies in the UK and the sector could support more than 12,000 jobs and up to £11 billion in private investment by 2030.
Autocar recently heard from one such company, Bramble Energy, which wants to bring down the cost of the fuel cell stack by applying printed circuitboard technology.
A hydrogen ‘taskforce’ has been established to look at projects to invest in and generally steer a promising industry that has so far has conspicuously lacked a homegrown market and refuelling infrastructure to support it, on the transport side at least.
Despite BMW’s advocacy, progress in making FCEV a powertrain for cars has stalled. Currently only the Toyota Mirai saloon is offered with a fuel cell in Europe, after Hyundai wound down sales of its Nexo SUV. But even long-time hydrogen advocate Toyota could only shift 46 across the region in the nine months to the end of September, according to figures cited by Automotive News Europe.
Instead the FCEV focus is moving to commercial vehicles, with Toyota also admitting that’s where it thinks the technology's strengths best lie.
"We have tried Mirai but not been successful," said technical head Hiroki Nakajima at the recent Tokyo mobility show. "Hydrogen stations are very few and difficult to realise, so Mirai is smaller [in volume]."
The more predictable routes taken by commercial vehicles make them easier to plan a network for, Nakajima said. Toyota in Europe is about to use FCEV trucks for some logistical routes in Europe, partly to create the market for operators put in refuelling stations.
“We aren't giving up on hydrogen fuel cell products like Mirai,” said Yoshihiro Nakata, CEO of Toyota Motor Europe. “On the contrary, we believe the growing infrastructure, stimulated by wider hydrogen use, will create more compelling reasons to choose fuel cell technology in the future.”
The global network right now is lagging badly. Research from BMI, the consultancy arm of Fitch Ratings, shows that only South Korea has a hydrogen refuelling infrastructure of any note, with just over 300 filling stations serving what is currently the world’s largest hydrogen fleet, at 30,000 vehicles.
China has around 200 filling stations for around 13,000 vehicles, and Japan is next with more than 150 serving around 6000 hydrogen vehicles.
“These ratios are way off to be viable – even South Korea’s, at 100 vehicles per station,” said Anna-Marie Baisden, head of autos and infrastructure research at BMI, during a recent press briefing.
In Europe, Germany leads the infrastructure race, with 87 hydrogen stations, according to the H2 Live online map, part of the H2 Mobility Deutschland hydrogen infrastructure company, which is funded by suppliers such as Shell and Total.
The Netherlands is next, with 16 fuelling stations.
Even for those refuelling stations already up and running, getting hold of hydrogen isn’t always easy, which in turn pushes up prices.
Plug Power, an American company that makes both fuel cells and electrolysers (the machines that make green hydrogen when powered by renewable energy), warned in its third-quarter earnings call that the price of hydrogen in California fuel stations had doubled to $30 (£24) per kilogramme and many were running dry. That’s the equivalent of around £1.70 a litre of petrol, meaning the prototype Toyota Hilux FCEV would theoretically cost around £190 to fill up for a range of 370 miles.
That will be a temporary glitch as more hydrogen production facilities come online. The demand will be led by industries whose needs can’t be fully met by renewable powered electricity to decarbonise their operations.
“All the commodities companies are looking at hydrogen - steel, mining, everybody,” said Angelina Valavina, head of EMEA natural resources and commodities at Fitch Ratings, at the same press briefing.
The increased availability of hydrogen produced to support these industries will bring in vehicle companies, Valavina predicted.
Taking the price out of fuel cells is the next hurdle on the vehicle side. Partly that’s because so few are being made.
“The high cost of the [fuel cell] stack is driven by low volume; as soon as volumes ramp up, we will get some economies of scale,” said Francesco Pignolo, chief engineer of the forthcoming Ram Promaster Hydrogen large van at Stellantis.
The high cost is compounded by the fact that fuel cell systems don’t generate enough electric power on their own so need the back-up of a battery to create a plug-in hybrid system. For example, the Vauxhall Vivaro FCEV and related vans use an 11.5kWh battery taken from Stellantis’s PHEV car range.
“This technology is more complex than BEV, because it has many more components," said Pignolo. "This drives a higher cost, for sure."
Some makers of trucks and heavy plant machinery think that the fuel cell is superfluous. The Hydrogen Engine Alliance, comprised of the likes of Daimler Truck, Claas, Isuzu, JCB, MAN, Bosch, BorgWarner and Dana, advocate just running hydrogen through regular engines to create power from combustion, rather than a chemical reaction.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel,” asserts the Alliance on its website.
The advantage of hydrogen combustion is that business can largely continue as usual. There’s no major disruption to the combustion engine supply chain and fewer cost issues. The downside versus fuel cells is some NOx emission at the tailpipe, due to the high temperature of the combustion and reduced fuel efficiency.
The Hydrogen Engine Alliance has found an unlikely collaborator in motorsport, which also wants to keep combustion engines, albeit for more emotive reasons. For example, Le Mans wants to introduce a hydrogen category in 2026 – both fuel cell and combustion engines - with the goal of running all the top class on hydrogen by 2030. Meanwhile, governing body the FIA is looking at hydrogen as a possibility for Formula 1 from 2031.
We’ve seen Toyota race a hydrogen-combusting Toyota Corolla and go rallying with an equivalent GR Yaris, and it has said it will enter its GR H2 WEC hypercar concept under the new Le Mans regulations.
The hypercar is “intended to deliver speed, efficiency and reliability with a healthy dose of the sound [that Toyota chairman] Akio Toyoda refers to as a lullaby,” said Matt Harrison, chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Europe.
The Renault Group’s Alpine unit has showcased a similar concept, the Alpenglow, with a hydrogen combustion engine.
Given motorsport's creed of ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’, it’s mainly the truck industry and supply chain that will see motorsport as a marketing tool for hydrogen. For example, Bosch is developing a range of hydrogen engine components for mainly trucks that it will test on motorsport applications.
“We prove the technology here, then transfer it to vehicles. Why not?” said Lionel Martin, senior manager for hydrogen engines at Bosch Motorsports at a recent event to celebrate the company’s 125th anniversary.
Its test race car is a Ligier JS2 R with a 3.0-litre V6 with three 700bar hydrogen cylinders.
“The key topic is the storage, not the engine,” said Martin. “If you want to run 10 laps of Le Mans, you need lots of hydrogen. If you don’t want to make the car 10 metres longer, you need lots of optimisation.”
The hurdles for hydrogen are omnipresent, especially given the sheer scale of the investment in battery power that is driving down the cost of BEVs far faster than is happening for FCEVs.
“Every time we start with a new technology, the first steps aren't the best ones in terms of profitability,” said Pignolo. “But it’s chicken and egg: if you do not start, it will not happen.”