The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution, Part 2

The NMA Foundation presents The Car of the Future weekly feature:

Check out part 1 of this series on The Rather Quiet Hydrogen Revolution.  

Earlier this month, the Detroit Free Press posted an article about how the world might have already reached the range sweet spot for Electric Cars or EVs. Navigant Research Senior Analyst Sam Abuelsamid was quoted in the article,

“I wouldn’t expect to see vehicles go much beyond about 300 miles per range and I think most mainstream EVs are probably going to be kind of where the Bolt is now, 200 to 400 miles of range, and I think the 200-mile threshold is really kind of the sweet spot for EV.”

During last week’s Tokyo Auto Show, Daihatsu Motor Company (subsidiary of Toyota) Soichiro Okudaira stated that “As far as green cars go, vehicle powertrain electrification is a must.” He added, “EV (technology) is a great match for small cars people use every day to commute, go shopping, because it’s easy to charge and maintain.”

Even though Toyota has embraced EVs, company officials are still calling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles or FCV the ultimate “green car” technology. FCVs can refuel faster and can travel longer distances, making them perhaps an attractive option for larger passenger vehicles and trucks. Pricing and charging infrastructure still remain challenges however.

Toyota wants to boost annual FCV sales 10-fold to 30,000 vehicles by 2020 or after.

The potential for FCVs occur currently in fleet operations (commercial and military) and the stationary/logistics market (forklifts, etc.). The largest market for hydrogen fuel cell technology today is stationary power systems including backup power.

Currently, U.S. taxpayers are footing the bill on research into solar-power water splitting and other renewable resources for hydrogen. The primary source for hydrogen currently is, believe it or not, fossil natural gas. Finding an alternative and green way to source hydrogen is critical to the future of FCVs.

In early October, GM presented a heavy-duty hydrogen fuel cell truck nicknamed SURUS for Silent Utility Rover Universal Superstructure. GM spokesman Kevin Kelly said that the SURUS is built on an existing heavy-duty pickup truck platform and could be used for drayage trucks (port-to-warehouse), semi-tractor trucks and perhaps even an autonomous ambulance.

In the past two decades, GM has invested at least $2.5 billion in fuel cell technology for trucks and military vehicles. The automaker recently began testing the ZH2, based on a heavily modified, fuel cell powered Chevy Colorado midsize truck. GM’s global head of fuel cell development, Charles Freese describes particulars of the ZH2:

“We wanted the ZH2 to evaluate how the technology performs in a true off-road vehicle, a pickup truck with extreme capabilities, and we’re trying to leverage what fuel cells have to offer that other technologies are not as well-equipped to offer. We have a big vehicle with 300 to 400 miles of range, and we can offer twice the efficiency of an internal combustion engine with all the torque needed for four-wheel drive and rock-crawling. We’ve got approach and departure angles better than a Humvee.”

Freese also said that the ZH2 can provide for a stealth operation with a low thermal signature and can provide fuel cell power for things like a field hospital, laser targeting system, and even a high energy weapon. He added that the fuel cell also produces water which can be valuable in battlefield conditions and users can produce the fuel in the field if needed.

GM does not yet have a personal FCV in the works but are working on different applications for sea and air as well.

What about other automaker FCV ambitions?

In September, Volkswagen Group CEO Matthias Mueller announced big plans for electric VW and Audi models but not so much for FCVs. In the next 12 years, the company will invest $24 billion in zero-emission vehicles, 80 new EVs by 2025 and an electric version of all 300 group models by 2030. President of Audi America Scott Keogh said EV is first and then they might turn their attention to FCVs. He estimated that limited fleets of Audi FCVs will be on the road within five years perhaps. In 2016, Audi unveiled a concept car called the h-tron Quattro but nothing has been said about the concept since.

Mercedes announced in early September that they are developing a very early stage hybrid concept FCV based on the GLC. Their F-Cell concept engine will have a fuel cell plus a battery capable of holding enough charge for a shorter-range drive. In order to make sure the car is safe during crashes, the company plans to put the specialized hydrogen tanks in a special subframe between the axles and outfit the entire car with special circuits for a high-voltage system.

BMW has FCV dreams but claims in a recent company blog post that the company will not have a FCV any earlier than 2025.

Hyundai has a vision for a Hydrogen Energy Society and has a small FCV on the market currently called the Tucson which can travel up to 265 miles on two tanks. In August, the Korean automaker previewed a new FCV SUV hybrid which will have its name revealed in January and be for sale in Korea in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul.

In part 3 of this Car of the Future blog series, I will explore the technology, current research and issues with FCVs and its fueling technology.

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The NMA Foundation is a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation.  The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions. 

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If you are interested in learning more about the Car of the Future check out the following NMA resources:

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NMA’s Flipboard Magazine called Car of the Future—Over 50 stories are placed each month in this magazine devoted to the Car of the Future.  Stories featured include future car politics, industry news and thought pieces.

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