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“While OEMs might be starting to bring fuel-cell technology to the market the infrastructure remains severely lacking”

At last a tide seems to have been turned, and alternative powertrain technologies that aren’t reliant on gasoline and diesel are starting to appear on public roads. The hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle is finally in series production.

In the near decade that I’ve covered the automotive industry, hydrogen has for a long time been the ultimate goal for many engineers and companies as they look for a true alternative to the combustion engine, but forever 10 years away from series production. But now things are changing.

Toyota and Hyundai-Kia have already brought fuel-cell vehicles to the market, although still in very small volumes, and their engineers have managed to overcome some of the technology’s biggest challenges: cost, packaging and cold-start ability.

Toyota’s Mirai sedan uses much of the technology the OEM developed for its hybrid vehicles, which has helped the firm to keep the cost of the car down to roughly €55,000. That’s still expensive, but closer to the price of a similarly sized vehicle than has previously been possible, and likely to fall further as volumes increase.

And volumes will increase. When I spoke to Toyota’s project manager for fuel-cell systems last year, he couldn’t drive one of the cars privately because demand was so great, so he was on a waiting list.

And Hyundai-Kia’s determination to improve fuel-cell technology has allowed it to develop systems that will be able to start even when the temperature drops to -30°C. That is a huge achievement considering that, as recently as 2003, fuel-cell vehicles couldn’t start at all in temperatures below zero, and now their performance is better than a diesel engine.

And now Honda is bringing its first series production hydrogen fuel-cell vehicle to market, the Clarity sedan.

It marks a leap in the technology for the OEM, as it has managed to package the majority of the powertrain components under the bonnet of the car, so cabin space isn’t encroached upon.

Honda’s engineers changed the configuration of the Clarity’s stack so that instead of a vertical flow structure it uses a horizontal one. The channel structure has been made thinner by 20% too, and the stack’s size has been reduced by 33% overall. That makes it the same size as a V6 gasoline engine.

There is still a huge amount of work that needs to be done, because while OEMs might be starting to bring fuel-cell technology to the market – BMW, Daimler and General Motors will soon follow suit – the infrastructure remains severely lacking.
These are the sort of problems that faced the internal combustion engine when it was being developed at the end of the 19th century, but they were swiftly overcome when firms realised that demand for the technology was there.

There are plans to build 400 refuelling stations in Germany by 2023, which is a start, but it pales into insignificance compared to the 14,000 gasoline and diesel garages that already exist. They’ve had over 100 years of investment, though.
Now these vehicles are coming onto our roads, it will be interesting to see how quickly they are accepted, and how swiftly the infrastructure grows to fuel them.

But it’s good to know that, now the engineers have overcome many of the development hurdles, conversations about hydrogen vehicles being 10 years away won’t happen any more.

tags: Powertrain