German auto giants rely on hydrogen cars | The mighty 790 KFGO
By Nick Carey
MUNICH (Reuters) – Battery power may be a pioneer on the way to the automotive technology of the future, but it does not rule out the outsider hydrogen.
That is the view of some of the major automakers, including BMW and Audi, who are developing prototypes for hydrogen fuel cell cars in addition to their battery vehicle fleets as part of preparations for the abandonment of fossil fuels.
They hedge their bets and calculate that a change in the political winds could shift the balance towards hydrogen in an industry shaped by Tesla’s decision to take the battery-powered path to clean cars.
The focus is on the global auto hub Germany. It is already betting billions on hydrogen fuel in sectors like steel and chemicals to meet climate goals, and in highly competitive elections this month, the Greens could join the coalition government and continue to advance the technology.
BMW is the biggest proponent of hydrogen among German car manufacturers and is pointing the way to a mass market model around 2030. The company is also keeping an eye on the changed hydrogen policy in Europe and in China, the world’s largest car market.
The Munich premium player has developed a hydrogen prototype based on its X5 SUV in a project that has already been partially financed by the federal government.
Jürgen Guldner, BMW vice president and head of the hydrogen fuel cell car program, told Reuters the automaker will build a test fleet of nearly 100 cars in 2022.
“Whether this (technology) is driven by politics or demand, we will be done with a product,” he said, adding that his team is already working on developing the next generation of vehicles.
“We are on the verge of achieving that goal and we really believe we will see a breakthrough in this decade,” he said.
VW’s premium brand Audi told Reuters that it had put together a team of more than 100 mechanics and engineers who were researching hydrogen fuel cells on behalf of the entire Volkswagen Group and that they had built some prototypes.
HYDROGEN NOW TOO CHEAP
Hydrogen is seen as a safe choice by the world’s largest truck manufacturers such as Daimler Truck, Volvo Trucks and Hyundai because batteries are too heavy for long-distance commercial vehicles.
But fuel cell technology – in which hydrogen flows through a catalyst and generates electricity – is currently still too expensive for the mass market. Cells are complex and contain expensive materials, and while refueling is faster than recharging batteries, infrastructure is scarcer.
The fact that hydrogen lags so far behind in the race for the affordable market also means that even some technology advocates like the Greens prefer battery-powered cars because they see them as the fastest way to achieve their primary goal of decarbonizing transportation.
However, the Greens advocate the use of hydrogen as a fuel for ships and aircraft and want to invest heavily in “green” hydrogen, which is obtained exclusively from renewable sources.
“Hydrogen will play a very important role in the transport industry,” said Stefan Gelbhaar, the party’s transport policy spokesman in the Bundestag.
Politics can be unpredictable, however – Diesel went from saint to sinner in the wake of the Volkswagen Dieselgate emissions fraud scandal that came to light in 2015.
Last year, Daimler announced it would cease production of the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL, a hydrogen fuel cell SUV, but a source familiar with the company’s plans said the project could easily be revived if the European Commission or a German one Government with Green participation decide to promote hydrogen cars.
“We are initially using (battery) electrics, but we are working closely with our truckers,” says Daimler production manager Jörg Burzer.
“The technology is always available.”
180 KPH IN HYDROGEN X5
For years, Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan, and Honda, and South Korean Hyundai, were alone in developing and promoting hydrogen fuel cell cars, but now they have company.
China is expanding its hydrogen refueling infrastructure. Several automakers are currently working on fuel cell cars, including Great Wall Motor, which plans to develop hydrogen-powered SUVs.
The EU wants to build more hydrogen filling stations for commercial vehicles. Fitch Solutions auto analyst Joshua Cobb said the bloc will likely not begin pushing hydrogen passenger cars for another two to three years as he is still considering how to pay for his battery-electric car push and get enough “green”. Hydrogen from renewable sources.
But he added: “It is not impossible to think that the (German) Greens, when they come to power, could accelerate the push to pass regulations in favor of hydrogen fuel cell cars.”
BMW’s Guldner admitted that hydrogen technology was too expensive to be viable in the consumer market today, but said costs would come down as freight forwarders invested in the technology to bring fuel cell vehicles to market on a large scale.
To demonstrate the hydrogen prototype X5 from BMW, Guldner Reuters spun at 180 kilometers per hour on the autobahn near the automaker’s headquarters in Munich and gave him enough fuel in a few minutes, a total of 500 km with a hydrogen pump at a gas station.
Guldner said BMW sees hydrogen fuel cell cars as a “complement” to its future battery-electric model range and offers an alternative for customers who cannot charge at home, travel far and want to fill up quickly. The engine of the hydrogen X5 is the same as the all-electric iX from BMW.
“If the future is zero emissions, we believe it is better to have two answers than one,” he added.
A LONG AND SANDING ROAD
However, Fitch Solutions’ Cobb said it would be years before European political support for hydrogen-powered cars resulted in significant sales.
In fact, auto consultancy LMC predicts that various uses of hydrogen – in commercial vehicles, aviation, and energy storage – would drive its adoption in passenger cars, but in the longer term.
“We’re not going to make it anytime soon,” said LMC senior powertrain analyst Sam Adham. LMC estimates that hydrogen fuel cell models will account for only 0.1% of sales in Europe in 2030, and sales will only pick up after 2035.
Disagreements remain about the prospects for technology in the global automotive industry and even within auto companies.
VW’s Audi unit is researching fuel cells, for example, but Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess has spoken out against hydrogen-powered cars.
“The hydrogen car has not proven to be a solution to climate change,” he said in a tweet this year. “Sham debates are a waste of time.”
Stephan Herbst, General Manager of Toyota in Europe, sees it differently.
In his role as a member of the Hydrogen Council business group, which predicts hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars by 2050, Herbst said he was confident that governments had now set ambitious CO2 reduction targets that they would put hydrogen alongside the battery propel electric cars.
“We firmly believe that this is not a question of either or,” he added. “We need both technologies.”
(Reporting by Nick Carey; additional reporting by Christina Amann in Berlin and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt; editing by Joseph White and Pravin Char)