shell hydrogen pump

Toyota has long pushed hydrogen’s credentials and has entered a tech partnership with BMW for it

Despite battery-electric cars’ rapid rise to dominance, major manufacturers continue to invest in hydrogen tech

Hydrogen has long been billed as a key fuel of the future, and a decade or so ago it seemed level-pegging with pure battery electric vehicles in the supremacy stakes. 

A decade on, the BEV is all-dominant and hydrogen remains pretty much where it started: as a viable fuel but with some seemingly insurmountable challenges to overcome. 

Yet still some of the world’s largest and most powerful OEMs persist with its development. Toyota has long pushed the fuel’s credentials, and now BMW is stepping up development of the fuel as part of its technology partnership with the Japanese giant. Late last month, it began production of fuel cell systems for its future iX5 model, and it will have them testing on the road later this year. 

“We think hydrogen-powered vehicles are ideally placed technologically to fit alongside battery-electric vehicles and complete the electric mobility picture,” said BMW boss Oliver Zipse. “By commencing small-scale production of fuel cells today, we are demonstrating the technical maturity of this type of drive system and underscoring its potential for the future.”

That may be true, but such a statement could have been made at any point within the past 20 years or more. The needle has just never been turned. But why?

If you thought creating a network to support the charging needs for BEVs was a challenge, think of the perhaps even greater one involved in setting up a network for hydrogen, which requires careful storage. While the act of refuelling a vehicle on the forecourt might be as quick and easy as refilling a petrol or diesel car is today, what leads up to that point is anything but.

Then there is the creation of hydrogen itself, and the concerns over its ‘greenness’. This is an argument long held against it, but it is something that’s true of the energy sources for BEVs too, although hydrogen typically loses out in the PR stakes. 

There remain concerns about hydrogen’s efficiency as a fuel, too, although Toyota has made huge strides in improving the efficiency and power density of hydrogen cars through its admirable development of the Mirai.

Still, until BMW’s arrival, hydrogen has largely been a one car-maker show, particularly after Honda dropped its own hydrogen car, the FCV Clarity, last year, and in 2020 Mercedes-Benz turned its back on the fuel after three decades of development. Previous Volkswagen Group boss Herbert Diess was even quite sneery on the subject, although new VW CEO Thomas Schafer is more pragmatic, acknowledging not only its advantages but also its challenges. 

Hydrogen is seen as having a future as a fuel, but typically with larger, heavier modes of transport, such as trucks and buses. Mercedes retains involvement here to that end, and this is where Toyota can see a clear path to mass adoption. Truck heavyweight Volvo is also present. 

Converting heavy-duty commercial vehicles to hydrogen will be a challenge, but the unsuitability of battery-electric technology for these forms of transport mean it will likely win out as the fuel of the future.

For road cars? Whatever the merits and appeal of the technology, the major stumbling block that seems impossible to reconcile remains around the establishment of the infrastructure, who is going to set it up and who is going to pay for it.

However good an idea hydrogen for road cars might be, try telling a government decision-maker and purse-holder that they need to invest in another generational shift in automotive infrastructure so soon after one that itself was billed as ‘once in a lifetime’. A horse has already been backed here, and it’s not hydrogen.

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