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Are fuel cell vehicles the future of motoring or just “mind-bogglingly stupid”?

27/05/2018 by Mark Schneider in Technology

Hydrogen is the most common element on the planet and most carmakers seem convinced that hydrogen-powered cars are the future of motoring, but with a whole range of electric vehicles about to enter the market it’s worth asking the question: why the push for hydrogen?

On the face of it hydrogen does offer advantages as a vehicle fuel. Unlike fossil fuels it’s theoretically a very clean fuel. Use hydrogen to drive your car and the only thing coming out of the tailpipe is water vapour.

Fuel cell vehicles also offer outstanding performance with the sort of instant effortless torque that electric cars are famous for. That’s hardly surprising, after all hydrogen fuel cell vehicles are really just electric vehicles that produce their own electricity using hydrogen.

Refilling a hydrogen fuel cell car is also quick and easy – hardly more difficult than filling your conventional petrol vehicle. That makes it enough like a regular car for motorists to easily adapt to the technology.

Then there’s range. Hydrogen fuel cell cars promise anything from 500-800km between refills. That’s better than conventional cars or the electric ones about to enter the market. And it’s a good thing they’ve got that range, because if you’re an early convert to hydrogen cars you’re going to be covering an awful lot of distance searching for a hydrogen fuel station. At the time of writing Australia had precisely none of them, though there are a handful on the way. Establishing a network of hydrogen filling stations at an approximate cost of $2 million-plus won’t be cheap, quick or easy.

But the barriers to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles don’t end there by any means. Another big one is cost. If you think the upcoming electric Hyundai Kona is a bit expensive at about $50,000, well how about $80,000 for a hydrogen fuel cell Hyundai ix35? While the cost of them might well come down it’s questionable whether fuel cell vehicles will ever be as cheap as pure electric vehicles because the engineering is inherently more complex.

As for the green credentials of hydrogen fuel cells, well that’s not quite as clear-cut as it first appears either. While it’s true that the only thing coming out of that tailpipe is water vapour, producing the hydrogen that goes into the tank is anything but a “clean and green” process. The current way of producing it uses hydrocarbons – that’s fossil fuels such as gas or coal ¬– in a process that’s far from renewable. Having said that there are sustainable ways of producing it using renewable energy that look promising.

Yet despite those problems most senior automotive executives believe battery cars will eventually fall by the wayside with hydrogen fuel cells succeeding long term, according to a survey by KPMG. Japanese carmakers seem particularly keen on the technology, with Toyota particularly gung-ho.

It’s easy to see why oil companies could favour their development. As hydrogen can be made cheaply from natural gas it opens up a whole new market for them that they can meet by adapting their existing infrastructure.

Hydrogen enthusiasts seem to be betting on the idea that 25-45-minute recharging times for electric cars will discourage their take-up for motorists used to quickly filling up the tank and driving off. But while it’s true that putting your car on a charger is an unfamiliar act, when it comes to mobile phones we don’t give it a second thought. Perhaps as electric cars become more commonplace we won’t give that a second thought either.

Which brings up the one place where hydrogen fuel cells will never compete with pure electrics – it’s the price of fuel. Solar panels keep getting cheaper and popping up on the homes of more and more homes and businesses by the day. Plug your electric car into your solar powered home or business, charge it up and hey presto, there you have it – free fuel that’s totally emission-free as well!

As for the other bugbear of electric cars, limited range, well that’s becoming less of a concern. Over the last 6 years the median range of electric cars has increased by 56%. Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 in long range form will offer 500km while the Hyundai Kona electric offers up to 470km.

For all these reasons Tesla boss, Elon Musk, has labelled fuel cells as “mind-bogglingly stupid” “fool cells”. Time will tell if he’s right about that, but it would be brave to totally bet against the likes of Toyota, Hyundai, Honda and Mercedes Benz who are all heading down the hydrogen fuel cell road while hedging their bets with electric vehicles as well.

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