There is one key imperative facing decision-makers in the automotive industry today: get greener – and accomplish it quickly.
The need for greater sustainability in the transport sector poses a significant challenge for society. Whilst there is no silver bullet for full decarbonisation, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have long been considered the only solution. Over the past decade, they have enjoyed growing popularity, and not only in Europe. Thanks to generous government subsidies, China is today the world’s largest market for BEVs.
Battery technology, however, cannot tackle the electrification challenge alone. It provides a practical option for shorter journeys in passenger cars, but restricted range and extended recharging times make a complementary solution for longer range trips and heavy-duty commercial vehicles still necessary.
Fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) can fill this gap. They use hydrogen, which, when mixed with oxygen in a fuel cell, produces the electricity needed to drive an electric motor. The by-product in this process is water and heat, meaning zero harmful tailpipe emissions.
To fully appreciate FCEVs’ potential to complement automotive electrification, we need to look at the technical advantages they offer.
The first one is range. The energy density of hydrogen allows existing FCEVs to travel more than 400 miles on a single tank of hydrogen, offering comparable range to existing internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles.
In addition, the refuelling time to full range for FCEVs is around three to five minutes, far quicker than even the most modern fast chargers for BEVs. These properties make fuel cell vehicles remarkably similar to those powered by traditional petrol or diesel engines, requiring little behavioural change for the driver, and so ensuring a smoother transition to emission-free driving.
“Even existing fuel cell vehicles can do more than 400 miles on a single tank”
Finally, weight and dimensions. Fuel cell and hydrogen storage is lighter and takes up less space than a battery. Hydrogen in FCEVs is converted into electricity when needed, making them a more viable option when transporting large and heavy loads over long distances.
From an environmental perspective, the benefits are clear. Hydrogen is nature’s simplest and most abundant element. It can be easily produced from water – even seawater – through electrolysis and using renewable energy, which makes the entire cycle ‘well to wheel’ virtually CO2 free.
Even better news is that businesses are warming up to the idea of hydrogen vehicles. In Switzerland, retail giant COOP has ordered 1000 Hyundai FCEV trucks to be deployed within the next four years . Meanwhile, in the US, beer brewing giant ABInBev ordered 800 FCEV trucks with Nikola Motors for 2020-2025 . In China, several hundred FCEV delivery vehicles are already on the road.
While fuel cell adoption is still at an very early stage, industry experts expect this to change rapidly. Recent KPMG Global Automotive Executive Surveys for 2017, 2018 and 2019 consistently rank FCEVs as one of the top 3 global trends. As scale increases, studies show that they will be on a life cycle cost parity with both traditional combustion-engined vehicles and battery electric vehicles by 2025.
Governments are also taking notice. China recently announced it will introduce subsidies to promote the development of hydrogen fuelling stations and continue subsidising FCEVs. At the same time, it will scale back its support to battery-powered cars, which alone cannot solve air pollution challenges in a country whose electricity generation is predominantly powered by coal. California, Japan, Korea, and some European countries are also moving towards a similar approach.
All this does not make BEVs obsolete. They will still be crucial to broader efforts to decarbonise passenger transport, especially for short-range journeys. But for fleet managers, the operational advantages of FCEVs are extensive – and as zero-emission transport becomes an increasing necessity for businesses, it’s a technology they cannot afford to overlook when planning for the long run.
Executive head of market development at Anglo American Platinum