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High costs and a limited refuelling network count against them, but for the right user can hydrogen cars be a viable choice?

Hydrogen power continues to make limited inroads to the UK car market. The Toyota Mirai fuel cell vehicle, has been on sale since 2015 with UK sales totalling just 137 to the end of last year.

For those users who do take the plunge, what is it like to live with a hydrogen car? What sort of use does the technology – and the infrastructure – make hydrogen cars best suited to? And how do drivers adapt and make the switch?

 

CHEMISTRY LESSON

Arval UK, the contract hire and leasing company, has been a keen advocate of hydrogen power. The company ran a series of roadshows last year to raise awareness of hydrogen vehicles.

For the right user can hydrogen cars be a viable choice? - Paul Marchment, Business Manager at Arval UK

Paul Marchment, Business Manager, Arval UK

“Following a pilot event in Swindon, Wiltshire, BNP Paribas funded a series of four further Arval roadshows in Swindon, Leeds, Oxford and Birmingham,” says Paul Marchment, business manager at Arval UK.

“We had between four and eight cars on display which the general public were able to sit in and talk to the experts about.“

What are the major objections that visitors to the roadshow raised?

“It’s where to get the hydrogen from,” Marchment explains. “The vehicles we had on display were all fuelled and we took people out in them so they could engage with the technology, but the biggest barrier remains the fuelling infrastructure.”

Whereas some of the common objections to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are founded on misunderstandings or myths, worries about the size of the hydrogen refuelling network are well founded. The number of public filling stations across Britain remains stuck in the teens, although some more are at least in the planning stage.

for the right user can hydrogen cars be a viable choice? - There are few filling stations, but more are on the way

There are few filling stations, but more are on the way

Neither is the network evenly spread throughout the country. This makes hydrogen a non-starter for a user who needs to drive all over Britain, or who is based a long way from the nearest source of fuel. That said, the concentration of filling stations in certain areas could well be a strength for a someone whose business driving remains relatively close to one of these clusters.

For example, driving in and around Aberdeen (which features two filling stations) or London (five places to refuel within the M25, as well as Cobham Services) a hydrogen car is a viable proposition for the right user.

 

ARVAL PRACTISES WHAT IT PREACHES

For the right user can hydrogen cars be a viable choice? - Paul Marchment, Business Manager at Arval UK - with a Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Car at Arval Hydrogen Hub in Swindon

Paul Marchment, Business Manager at Arval UK – with a Toyota Mirai Hydrogen Car at Arval Hydrogen Hub in Swindon

Arval UK’s headquarters are in Swindon, where a ‘Hydrogen Hub’ has been established to encourage the use of hydrogen and fuel cell technology, not just for cars but also buses and forklift trucks, and to provide heat and power for buildings. Crucially, there are two public hydrogen filling stations, one run by ITM Power and another at Honda’s car factory in the town.

Easy availability of hydrogen fuel has made it practical for Arval – and its local customers – to use hydrogen cars.

“Arval has a hydrogen vehicle as a pool car which is open to staff to drive, plus Arval leases three more fuel cell vehicles to local businesses. Within the Swindon Hydrogen Hub there are a further five vehicles being used in and around the local area,” says Marchment.

The relatively long range of hydrogen cars means Arval’s vehicle can tackle longer drives. “The vehicle is taken further afield, notably Birmingham, Leeds and London. Obviously, we are careful to ensure that we are able to refuel it – once filled it has a range of around 300 miles.”

“If you’re near a fuel station, a fuel cell vehicle requires less of a change of habits then a BEV”

How do drivers get on with a hydrogen car? How easily can they adapt? Marchment says drivers need to be aware of how quiet the vehicles are: “At low speeds, pedestrians may not be able to hear you coming.” However, in other respects a fuel cell vehicle requires less of a change in habits than a battery electric vehicle. Drivers fill up in a few minutes at a filling station, rather than the relatively lengthy recharging time of a battery electric vehicle, generally at home or the office.

Like Arval with its local filling stations, other users who have made the switch to hydrogen vehicles are generally close to a source of fuel, and don’t need to drive the length and breadth of the country.

For the right user can hydrogen cars be a viable choice? - Refuelling a Toyota Mirai Fuel Cell

Easy refuelling makes a fuel cell car feel ‘normal’

The Natural History Museum (NHM) is one example, with a Toyota Mirai used for journeys within London when public transport isn’t practical (when moving fragile specimens, for example). London’s small but growing hydrogen refuelling network makes the Toyota Mirai a practical choice for journeys in and around the capital. The NHM’s two sites at South Kensington and Tring are less than 50 miles apart, so trips between the two are easily within the Mirai’s range.

The cost of the vehicles and the sparse infrastructure remain serious barriers to large-scale adoption of hydrogen power. But for the right user with the right business in the right location they can make a green and practical tool.

 

David Motton