Steve Young

Steve Young

There have been a number of stories in the press recently which all in one way or another related to the potential growth of hydrogen as fuel source for cars and other forms of transport, writes Steve Young, Managing Director of ICDP

This may seem a bit late in the game as we see the growth of battery electric vehicles (BEVs), sales now starting to overtake those of diesel cars in some markets.  Clearly, hydrogen cars like the Hyundai Nexo or Toyota Mirai are not going to be shooting up the sales charts anytime soon – not at over EUR60,000 each.  However, the recent news all points towards the pace of development accelerating to bring costs down and accessibility up.

The arguments in favour of hydrogen compared to BEVs hinge around the fact that whilst BEVs are zero emissions at source, the battery manufacturing process including mining of the raw materials means that the BEV starts with an emissions deficit compared to even an internal combustion engine (ICE) car.  Polestar have openly reported that with a typical European energy mix for electricity generation, you need to drive 78,000km before the carbon footprint becomes smaller than an ICE car.  Even with 100% clean wind power energy, the breakeven point is still 50,000km.   There are then issues about how effectively we will recycle batteries at the end of the vehicle's life, and even whether that end of life point might be earlier due to the technical complexity of the product.

A further point in favour of hydrogen is that the refuelling process is very similar to filling a conventional ICE car with just a couple extra steps to secure a seal from the filler pipe to the tank.  That time saving is not helpful when the hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is not so much nascent as non-existent – 13 across the whole of the UK, half of which are around London.  However, the development of solid state batteries which are more effective at storing energy and can be fully recharged in 10 minutes would not only address the time to 'refuel' your BEV, but also dramatically reduce the scale of the charging infrastructure needed.  Toyota amongst others is pushing forward with this, and is expected to show a prototype this year, but the technology still requires lithium as a raw material, so does not represent a 'silver bullet' that addresses all the challenges.

In this context, hydrogen seems to be attracting more attention.  Depending on the manufacturing process used, hydrogen can be less environmentally friendly than the 'water only' tailpipe emissions tag might suggest.  Conveniently categorised as 'grey', 'blue' or 'green', the processes respectively rely on extracting hydrogen from natural gas which releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, using the grey process but capturing the harmful emissions and storing them underground or in the green process using renewable energy sources like solar or wind to electrolyse water, splitting it into hydrogen and oxygen.  There has been a rush of investment into 'blue' hydrogen projects and related stocks as it seems to offer a quick solution, but scientists are warning against this, urging more support from governments for truly green solutions.  Even when we have ample supply, we still need to address the refuelling infrastructure needs – effectively a re-run of the current protracted ramp-up of BEV charging points, but with the added need for bulk hydrogen storage tanks.

I could also raise the solution that maybe should have been focused on earlier of synthetic fuels that would have used the existing fuelling infrastructure and IC engines, but other than some faint hopes that 911 enthusiasts have for the success of Porsche's plans in this area, it seems that this particular train has left the station.  Future regulations and restrictions do not allow for the continued sale of ICE cars, even if their fuel source is changed for the better.

Where we seem to be heading is a hybrid solution – not in the sense of an IC engine coupled to an electric motor, but the parallel use of both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV) and BEVs. 

Where we seem to be heading is a hybrid solution – not in the sense of an IC engine coupled to an electric motor, but the parallel use of both hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEV) and BEVs.  Due to a combination of the disadvantages of battery weight and the opportunities presented by highly predictable usage patterns from a fixed base, it looks like hydrogen will emerge as the leader in buses and many commercial vehicles.  Although delayed by the effect of Covid on public transport, plans to rapidly expand the production and use of fuel cell buses in the UK are now moving forward, with additional staff being hired at the Wrightbus factory in Northern Ireland this month.  The switch to BEVs for passenger cars now seems unstoppable, but over 5-10 years consumers may then have a choice between a solid state battery BEV which can be charged in a few minutes as needed, or a FCEV, perhaps most relevant for larger heavier vehicles like SUVs and big executive solutions.

For consumers, the picture might change every time they come to renew their car over the next decade.  For dealers, repairers and manufacturers they will need to remain nimble, ensuring that they are not investing today in what will become tomorrow's legacy, whilst still meeting the immediate needs and regulations.  And possibly a lucky few will have towed their GT3 track car behind their FCEV daily driver to their favourite track, and be enjoying some fast laps with a very traditional soundtrack?  Whatever the future holds, it would certainly be wise to assume that it is not a one way bet.

Steve Young is Managing Director of ICDP

ICDP is an international research-based organisation focused on automotive distribution, including the supply and retailing of new and used vehicles, after sales, network structures and operations.  ICDP works with vehicle makers, dealers, suppliers, and related organisations to improve the quality and effectiveness of the distribution model.