Once again the subject of hydrogen fuel cell cars is raising its head again. I’ve been involved in a couple of electric vehicle press events recently and journalists, who haven’t mentioned hydrogen cars for years, are suddenly asking about them again.
I used to get literally hundreds of tweets if I ever mentioned electric cars with the simple response ‘hydrogen is the future.’
Toyota are gearing up to launch a fuel cell car in the next year or so. I’m really looking forward to seeing it. If they actually start making them and they are even only mildly expensive, I for one will cheer, it shows that we can still make remarkable leaps in technological innovation.
Making fuel cell cars for anything even close to the cost of a traditional fossil burner is really, really difficult.
Way back in 2008, the lovely old men in jeans on Top Gear tested the Honda Clarity, a hydrogen fuel cell car that you couldn’t buy. They explained to us that unlike the Tesla Roadster which was just silly, hydrogen is the future. That’s what made this particular episode stand out as uniquely rubbish.
The question has to be asked, why would they have done that? What editorial decision was made back then to denigrate a universally admired battery car and contrast it with a fuel cell car?
Top Gear the TV show is funded by the BBC through the TV license.
Top Gear Live, the global series of massive, stadium events is sponsored by Shell.
Don’t be surprised, I mean it’s a show about cars sponsored by a fuel company and there is nothing wrong, covert or even awkward about that.
But the people most keen to promote and develop hydrogen fuel cells as an alternative to battery electric cars, the fossil fuel suppliers. Why?
Because they supply 95% of commercially available hydrogen, they extract it from ‘natural gas’ as part of the refining process.
Again, nothing wrong with that, it’s much better than all the other automotive fuels they produce, but it is, essentially at the moment, a fossil fuel.
Still nothing wrong with that, it means the fossil companies can still supply fuel that you have to buy at their outlets, you can’t make your own hydrogen at home. Okay, you can… but it’s a fairly chunky investment and enormously inefficient.
I drove the Honda Clarity in 2009, it’s a brilliant car, in fact one of the nicest cars I’ve ever driven. Smooth, quiet, powerful and all that came out of the diminutive tail pipe was water vapor.
It had a massive hydrogen tank in the boot (trunk) and an equally massive lithium-ion battery pack underneath the tank. Yes, a very big battery which, strangely was not mentioned on TG. It needed the battery to back up the power from the hydrogen fuel cell.
But wait, you can’t buy this car because it cost well over $2 million, also not mentioned on TG. $2 million is the estimate made by engineers in the automotive business.
Of course it was expensive, it was a test vehicle and Honda produced less than 100 and we don’t hear much about it now. But I predict that we will start hearing more and more about hydrogen, because it is the future, if you run a global fossil corporation, it’s almost the only future as more and more cities around the world continue to either introduce or tighten emission levels due to local area tail pipe pollution.
So this week during a presentation in Germany, CEO of Tesla cars Elon Musk, made the casual statement ‘hydrogen is so bullshit’ when opening a service centre for the ground breaking Model S battery electric car.
He said ‘it’s just marketing’ which is kind of accurate. If your corporation produces millions of traditionally powered fossil burners a year but you are sensing a change in public attitudes about cars that pump out carcinogenic particulates, you need to do something to reassure your customers.
“Yes, this diesel does produce CO2 and particulates a bit but don’t worry, we’ll soon be selling hydrogen fuel cell cars, hydrogen is the future.’
Since 1972 when I first heard the term hydrogen is the future I have been waiting. I'm not even mentioning things like infrastructure, the various methods of producing hydrogen, the energy costs associated with splitting water etc etc.
I've been waiting since 1972 and I’m pretty damn certain I’ll be waiting for a long while yet and in the meantime we are producing record numbers of fossil burning cars.
So I’m going to say this. It’s very simple. Batteries are the future.