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(Photo: Toyota, Illustration: Thomas Lutz)

The problem with electric vehicles is well-known: They cost too much, don’t have enough range and are impractical because of a dearth of charging stations. Automakers, together with other new-mobility stakeholders, are working on this. But so far, EV sales growth has been slow and the long awaited sales breakthrough hasn’t happened. Will the arrival of commercially available fuel-cell vehicles change that?

Price

There really aren’t any fuel cell vehicles ready for series production today, said German automotive expert Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer. “Toyota’s Mirai also won’t make it,” he predicted, noting that at 70,000 euros in Germany, the car, which went on sale this year, costs twice as much as a Volkswagen Golf. “Even with a 50 percent price cut, the compact car won’t be a success,” Dudenhoeffer said. The expert’s assessment isn’t shared by all, however. Thomas Jordan, hydrogen expert at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), a German think tank, said, longer term, fuel cells have a clear chance. “Fuel-cell vehicles will absolutely be price-competitive with combustion-engine powered cars,” he said, provided a number of conditions are met.

One of those conditions is that various components and systems come down in price. And that higher sales allow the economies of scale needed to bring prices down. One area where costs are likely to be reduced is the fuel cell itself. The next generation of cells will require 90 percent less platinum, a precious metal that is an expensive part of the cost equation, said Daimler’s head of fuel-cell development Christian Mohrdieck. Daimler also expects further technical development, the growth of a dedicated supplier network and higher sales volumes to bring prices down to the level of today’s hybrid-electric vehicles. But Dudenhoeffer believes that process still won’t go fast enough. “Prices of lithium-ion batteries are falling faster than the costs of fuel-cell technology,” he said.

Fuel-cell optimists say the actual hydrogen fuel will, in the long run, be competitive with the gasoline and diesel required by combustion-engine powered cars. That’s because hydrogen, in principle, can be produced cost-effectively through electrolysis. This process splits water into hydrogen and oxygen using electricity. The reaction takes place in so-called electrolyzers, which can be big or small. Depending on the source of electricity, the process doesn’t result in any greenhouse gas emissions. Charging stations can, in principle produce hydrogen locally, thereby saving on logistics costs. In Germany, industrial gas company Linde, together with industry partners, is already running test sites that locally produce hydrogen using the new technologies. As an energy source, hydrogen is 30 to 40 percent more efficient than an internal combustion engine. Electrolysis makes it possible to store the fuel in relatively affordable high-presure tanks.

Range

Driving range is where fuel-cell-powered cars have a clear advantage over battery-electric vehicles. Whereas battery EVs now getting ready for launch are struggling to up their range from less than 200 km to anywhere between 300 and 500 km, fuel-cell vehicles already can go 500 to 600 km on one charge. Another advantage: charging a fuel-cell vehicle only takes a few minutes, compared with much longer charging times for battery EVs. “Because of this relatively short recharging time, it’s more suitable for long-distance driving than fast chargers,” said Ulf Groos, who heads fuel-cell research atGermany’s Fraunhofer research institute for solar energy systems (ISE). But the advantage may be short-lived, as new battery technology reduces weight and boosts range. German automotive expert Dudenhoeffer noted that electric car maker Tesla, which runs a fast growing network of so-called “superchargers,” is already addressing the issue. “Charging times today are the only advantage fuel cells have” Dudenhoeffer said. “But Tesla and other carmakers will in a few years have solved this with charging current of up to 300 kilowatts. It will then take five minutes for 400 or 500 km.”

As batteries and fuel cells both have their advantages, some experts believe the two will coexist in tomorrow’scars. Energy company Total expects that refueling stations will provide facilities for both technologies. Daimler also plans a hybrid powertrain for the hydrogen version of the GLC SUV it is planning to launch in 2017. That means car owners could recharge batteries at home for their daily commute, while a fuel cell serves as a kind of range extender that provides unproblematic long-distance mobility and quick refueling. Said Fraunhofer’s Groos: “Fuel-cell hybrids could make sense as an interim solution.”

Infrastructure

Series production of fuell-cell vehicles may not have arrived yet, but a recharging infrastructure is already in the works. “We already have standardized, international protocols for refueling and we have one, standard refueling nozzle,” said Markus Bachmeier, head of the Hydrogen Solutions division at Linde. That’s in contrast to the refueling diversity that battery-electric vehicles still face. The construction of a network of hydrogen refueling stations is also in progress. In Germany alone, stakeholders want to have 400 stations by 2023. That’s a smaller number than the expected network of battery recharging stations, but the difference reflects the longer ranges that fuel-cell cars can travel on one charge. The auto industry has learned its lessons from the slow introduction of battery EVs, which many attribute to the absence of enough charging stations. “A certain amount of lead time for infrastructure has to be there to be able to offer first users basic coverage from the start,” Bachmeier said. Fraunhofer’s Groos was even more direct: “The technology in the car is ready for market, but the success of fuel cells depends in first instance on the infrastructure.”

Conclusion

Expert opinions differ on the near-to-medium-term viability of fuel-cell powered vehicles and the jury is out on whether they will complement or replace battery-electric cars. The latter are already gaining some traction with customers, they can be charged easily at home or in the office and they have relatively low operating costs. But fuel-cell propulsionoffers greater range, shorter refueling times and more options to interact efficiently with the electricity grid. One thing is safe to say: Both technologies are likely to play a role in tomorrow’s mobility mix, though to what extent remains to be seen.

By Werner Beutnagel

(This story was first published in automotiveIT International magazine. For a complimentary subscription, please go to: www.automotiveIT.com/subscribe)