The German car and truck manufacturers VW, Mercedes & Co. are bidding farewell to their hydrogen top dreams because there may be many arguments against H2 propulsion. While Toyota and Hyundai are still working flat out on hydrogen technology, the majority of European companies in the passenger car sector no longer believe in the H2 breakthrough. European car makers see great potential for H2 propulsion in the commercial vehicle sector.
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Hydrogen Top conditions
The basic conditions for H2 propulsion are currently far from ideal. In addition to the poorly developed infrastructure, there are high production costs and the currently still poor CO2 footprint of hydrogen production. Hydrogen has been considered one of the most promising candidates to replace gasoline and diesel since the 1960s. Mercedes, BMW, Audi and VW have also been experimenting with hydrogen fuel and fuel cell technology for decades. So far, however, German manufacturers have only built low-volume hydrogen-powered models, such as the Mercedes GLC F-Cell or BMW 7 Series Hydrogen.
Mainly Japan and South Korea drive the hydrogen top technology forward. The competition from Japan and South Korea is much more consistent. Toyota launched the Mirai in 2014, the world’s first fuel-cell car to be produced in large numbers, and the second generation is now rolling off the production line. Hyundai followed suit in 2018 with the Nexo hydrogen SUV. Due to the exotic technology, both models are comparatively expensive and therefore not best sellers.
The currently poorly developed infrastructure does the rest. Only just under 4,500 units of the South Korean Nexo, which costs at least 79,000 euros but is comparatively well equipped, were built in 2019. Nevertheless, the two groups are pushing ahead with development in this area at full speed, which is also due to the strong political will in the two Asian countries. The base Hyundai Nexo hydrogen SUV costs a lavish 79,000 euros. The basic Hyundai Nexo hydrogen SUV costs a lavish 79,000 euros.
VW focuses on battery-powered electric cars, not hydrogen
As reported by the Financial Times, most European carmakers have now largely buried their hydrogen top plans. Instead, they want to focus consistently on battery-powered electric vehicles in the passenger car sector. The CEO of the VW Group, believes the idea of a large market for fuel cell cars is too optimistic. You will not see widespread use of hydrogen in cars. Not even in 10 years, because the physics behind it are just so unreasonable.
At least at its core brand, the VW Group’s strategy for the future is built entirely around BEVs (battery electric vehicles). Premium subsidiary Audi already gave the first glimpse of a potential fuel cell SUV almost five years ago with its H-Tron study. However, given the current doubts of the Group’s CEO and the consistent electric strategy of the world’s largest car company, it is questionable whether Audi will ever launch a volume model with hydrogen drive.
The CEO worked on hydrogen-powered vehicle concepts during his time as a BMW engineer, but unlike most of his competitors, he doubts the usefulness of the drive concept even in the truck sector. VW subsidiaries MAN and Scania are still working on hydrogen trucks for long-distance travel, but their focus is also clearly on e-vehicles that draw their power from large batteries and are expected to cover between 200 and 300 kilometers on a single charge. On the subject, the CEO told the Financial Times. With trucks, it’s all about cost efficiency. And hydrogen is so expensive that the cost per kilometer would triple compared to a battery-electric truck.
Stellantis, a rival created by the merger of Groupe PSA (Peugeot, Citroën, Opel and DS) and Fiat-Chrysler, is a bit more optimistic in the transportation sector. The group wants to put small hydrogen-powered vans on the road in the coming years. But it doesn’t see much potential in the automotive sector, either. The bulk of the people who were pushing for the hydrogen car are now behind on e-cars.
Renault plans hydrogen vans and trucks
Renault also sees the ideal use for hydrogen top power in freight transport. Philippe Prevel is responsible for alternative fuels at the traditional French company. In his opinion, the drive makes sense above all for vehicles that have a central hub to which they return after the end of their shift, such as buses, cabs or delivery vans. The French already have the latter on offer with the Kangoo and Master Z.E. Hydrogen. However, the share of hydrogen variants in total sales has been extremely low so far.
In the long term, Prevel is aiming for a market share of 30 percent in the H2 van segment. At present, however, it is not yet possible to foresee how much growth potential there really is in this hitherto almost non-existent market. Still for this year, Renault is planning two new hydrogen delivery vans resulting from a cooperation with the American fuel cell specialist Plug Power. In addition, the Frenchman is convinced that the hydrogen-powered fuel cell will play a role primarily on routes over 300 kilometers. Purely electrically driven trucks would need heavy and space-consuming batteries for such distances. In the passenger car sector, Renault, like the majority of its European competitors, is focusing primarily on BEVs and hybrid drives by 2030.
Mercedes had ambitious hydrogen top plans for years. But the Stuttgart-based company is now also focusing primarily on the development of battery-electric cars and the expansion of its EQ model family. After the brand with the star had been producing fuel cell versions of the A- and B-Class since the nineties, the Mercedes GLC F-Cell was introduced at the end of 2018. The hydrogen SUV was only offered on lease and already discontinued in April 2020 after around 3,000 units. The Swabians have not completely abandoned their hydrogen program, however. In the truck sector, they recently entered into a cooperation with Volvo.
The situation is similar at the arch-rival from Munich. BMW is planning a locally emission-free version of the X5 for 2022, which will share much of the technology with Toyota’s Mirai technology carrier. But even with the fuel cell X5, the manufacturer expects only low unit numbers. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the Bavarians are also focusing on developing their battery-powered models, such as the i4 or iX. The production version of the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT is scheduled to roll off the production line in 2022. The production version of the BMW i Hydrogen NEXT is scheduled to start rolling off the production line in 2022.
Few hydrogen top filling stations and high prices
There are many reasons for the skepticism of the car companies. First and foremost, many customers are currently put off by the poor international infrastructure. Despite government subsidies since 2007, there are currently only 91 filling stations in Germany, according to the provider H2.LIVE, while around five are in the final construction phase. By comparison, gasoline could be tapped at a total of 14,400 locations last year.
Things don’t look any better in other countries. On the contrary, Germany leads the European ranking by a wide margin. In total, there are only 180 in the whole of Europe. No wonder, since the construction of a new H2 filling station costs around one million euros. In addition, hydrogen for cars is only produced in small quantities due to low demand, so the fuel is comparatively expensive. One kilo currently costs a hefty 9.50 euros. The Hyundai Nexo, for example, can travel slightly more than 100 kilometers on this fuel.
In addition, hydrogen models are significantly more expensive to buy than comparable gasoline or electric cars. While the latter have a generously dimensioned and cost-intensive lithium-ion battery, their technical design is much simpler. In hydrogen cars, the thick-walled high-pressure tanks are joined by the fuel cell, in which H2 reacts with oxygen. In addition to water and heat, this naturally generates the electricity needed for propulsion. The latter is then amplified by an up-converter and only then delivered to the electric motors. In addition, there is an additional buffer battery.
All these components currently result in high production and development costs. To reduce these costs significantly, automakers would have to sell hundreds of thousands of fuel cell vehicles every year. Given current sales figures, this is a utopian goal. At around 65 percent, the fuel cell’s efficiency is twice as high as that of an internal combustion engine. However, if you take into account the production, transport and conversion of the hydrogen into electricity, you end up with an efficiency of 29 to 32 percent. Battery-electric vehicles are currently more efficient than hydrogen cars.
If all vehicles were to be equipped with a hydrogen drive system, demand would likely rise to more than 1,000 units. By contrast, switching to an all-electric powertrain could actually reduce it to around 200 terawatt hours.
Green hydrogen is a dream of the future
The only exhaust gas produced by fuel cell cars is actually harmless water vapor. However, the production of H2 is still anything but climate-neutral in most cases. In theory, it is already possible to produce green hydrogen. In this case, the electrolysis of water is carried out exclusively with electricity that comes entirely from renewable and climate-neutral energy sources. However, this method is currently still very cost-intensive and is therefore only used on a small scale. Although the big breakthrough has long been predicted here, it has not yet materialized.
The norm today, on the other hand, is gray hydrogen. The energy for this comes largely from fossil fuels. In most cases, natural gas is converted into hydrogen and C02 at high temperatures. The latter is released into the ambient air, thus increasing the greenhouse effect. Blue hydrogen represents an intermediate stage. Here, production is carried out in the same way, but the greenhouse gases are captured and then stored. But there is also room for improvement in this process. Nevertheless, hydrogen should not be written off prematurely. In the long term, it is likely to play a decisive role in the energy transition. Even if, as things stand, it is more likely to be used in commercial vehicles and in the production of steel and cement.