Several years ago on the world’s highest profile motoring show, Jeremy Clarkson called hydrogen fuel cell cars the future of personal transport.
Instead of petrol they, these motors would use hydrogen, the most common element in the universe. Instead of pollution, all they would emit is water. It was the utopian future of motoring.
But here we are a few years down the road with no sign of them. In this blog, we dig down into the topic and ask: Dear Jezza, where are our hydrogen cars?
What are hydrogen fuel cell cars?
Hydrogen fuel cell cars are, essentially, electric cars. They have a battery, which powers the wheels via an electric motor. So far so similar.
However, unlike electric cars, which require charged from an external source, hydrogen fuel cell cars can power their batteries themselves using a hydrogen fuel cell.
The fuel cells works like this:
That looks pretty complicated — and it probably is! — but the basic premise is this. Hydrogen (from the fuel tank) and oxygen (from the air) go into the cell, the hydrogen dumps an electron into the battery and joins up with the oxygen to create water. The battery then powers the engine and off you go.
The cool thing about hydrogen cars is that they work while you’re driving. So, instead of driving for 150 miles, stopping to recharge and then driving for another 150 miles, you can keep on driving, stopping only when you need to top up the hydrogen fuel tank.
But the biggest benefit to hydrogen fuel cell cars is what comes out the exhaust pipe — water.
Instead of belching clouds of blue smoke into the face of a nearby pedestrian, the only emission from these cars is a light sprinkling of water.
Where’s the catch?
It’s easy to get caught up in the hydrogen hype bubble and convince yourself that the technology is the answer to all the world’s problems — but it’s not all plain sailing.
There are two key stumbling blocks for hydrogen cars:
There are only a handful of hydrogen refuelling stations dotted across the UK with very few more planned.
The average cost of a hydrogen fuel cell car is £55,000 with only two models available.
Two pretty huge problems. Let’s start with the infrastructure.
Leaving London the fuel stations fly by — Bedford, Coventry, Nottingham and Sheffield. However, after Sheffield they dry up quickly. Once you get back on the M1, the next station is in Aberdeen, some 385 miles away.
Okay, okay, okay. I know this is a super extreme example and that few people will ever make it but it does demonstrate how spotty the infrastructure is.
Poor infrastructure, say hydrogen supporters, will be rectified by fuel companies in the future. As more people buy hydrogen cars, companies will invest in more fuelling stations across the UK. That’s just how it works.
But who is going to buy a car that you can’t refuel anywhere and that can’t drive between Scotland and England? And if people don’t buy hydrogen cars in their vast quantities, why would for-profit companies plough millions of pounds of investment into hydrogen infrastructure?
It’s a Catch-22.
Second, price. The Toyota Mirai, one of only two commercially available hydrogen fuel cell cars, costs an estimated £60,000. That’s a lot of money.
A Mercedes CLS, Porsche Cayman and Jaguar F-Type all cost around £10,000 less and all look, sound and drive far better.
Again, supporters will say that the price will come down as demand goes up but that relies on early adopters driving uptake of the new tech. I’m simply not sure that that will ever happen.
On top of that, there’s issues with storage (hydrogen needs to be stored at huge pressures to be practically useful as a fuel), safety (remember the Hindenburg?) and development costs (Toyota spent 23 years developing its first production car).
Hasn’t electric already won?
Ignoring the infrastructure and financial speed bumps, the slowdown in hydrogen technology could have a simpler answer: electric vehicles.
Tesla, supported by increasing investment from established manufacturers, has already made electric cars a commercial reality. If you want a green car right now, you buy electric not hydrogen. It’s not a planned utopia, either. It’s here right now.
Last year Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, blasted hydrogen fuel cells, calling them “extremely silly” and that gives you a good idea of the general feeling for hydrogen tech.