Fuel cell car viable alternative from 2025 on?
Fuel cell cars are here today, but they probably won’t be a viable alternative for the ‘battery car’ before 2025. Japanese car maker Toyota, together with its South Korean competitor Hyundai, is one of the few manufacturers commercializing already its fuel cell cars on hydrogen in Europe.
Toyota, believing in the technology, assembled a group of journalists to drive all the way through Germany with its Mirai fuell cell car to prove – with some in advance planning – it is possible today. Toyota thinks hydrogen is the future, but it will take time, just like hybrid cars needed time to break through.
The choice for Germany for its road trip is the only viable, because the Germans are taking the lead in Europe on hydrogen vehicles, with 30 hydrogen pump stations spread over the country today, 100 to be realized by next year and 400 by 2023. Today only 300 fuel cell cars on hydrogen drive around in Germany.
One in Belgium, two in Netherlands
To compare: Belgium has one public hydrogen station in Zaventem, managed by Air Liquide. Not by coincidence close to the Toyota Motor Europe headquarters, which services the few Mirais in use. In the Netherlands there are two stations, one in Rotterdam and one in Helmond. There were three before.
It should be 20 by 2020, the Dutch government promises. But the Dutch federation of car importers RAI doesn’t believe it will come true. “More than enough planning, yes.”, says Huub Dubbelman from Daimler Netherlands. “But through fumbling with European subsidies and a government that favours battery technology more, everything is stagnating”
In Germany the government is financing new hydrogen stations that cost around 1,5 million euro each, for 48% . The problem is that people will not buy fuel cell cars if pump stations are not available. And nobody wants to invest in hydrogen pump stations if there are no full cell cars out there to fill up…
That’s why German government has formed a consortium with energy companies, research institutes, car makers and hydrogen producers to promote the clean hydrogen economy.
Fuel cell versus battery: efficiency
Auke Hoekstra, researcher at the Technical University Eindhoven (Netherlands) favours the battery car. “Fuel cells to generate electricity out of hydrogen are very expensive”, he says. “And the efficiency is low. Around 40% of the energy is lost in the conversion”. A battery car performs far better. “Roughly said, you need three times more energy per kilometre on hydrogen than a battery car”.
So you’ll need three times more wind farms to move the hydrogen cars and fuel cost are higher with hydrogen costing 10 euro per kg, enough for 100 km in the Mirai. “But hydrogen prices are artificially high today and will become cheaper and fuel cells become more efficient from 60% for the Mirai now, to probably 83% in the future”, says Taiyo Kawai, heading the fuel cell research team at Toyota.
Fuel cell versus battery: price
Toyoto won’t reveal the price of the fuel cell in its 60.000 euro Mirai. “But it is already 20 times cheaper than its predecessor in 2008 and it will be halved by 2020 and in 2025 again”, Kawai says. “It will cost only a quarter of today and will be competitive then”.
In the meanwhile prices of battery packs will drop significantly too. “But a fuel cell car has the advantage that to enlarge its range, you only have to install a cheap bigger hydrogen tank”, argues Kawai. “An electric car needs a bigger battery which is heavy and expensive”.
Fuel cell versus battery: sustainability
Fuel cells seem to wear out less than batteries. One of the Mirais has already 220.000 km on the odometer and its fuel cell has still 95% of its original capacity, Toyota says. Replacing a fuel cell is quite simple compared to replacing a battery in an electric car and Toyota points out it is working on the technology to exchange individual components.
What worries Kawai the most is how Toyota has to beef up production to 30.000 fuel cell cars a year. Today only 3.500 Mirais are sold worldwide. “It’s like having a master chef having to switch from a top restaurant to mass catering while maintaining the same quality”, Kawai explains. “It is a completely different production process and it keeps me awake at night”.
Lots to catch up
The fuel cell car today seems having to catch up a lot with the battery car. Price, efficiency and a range that isn’t much bigger then that of an electric car. Its main advantage is its capability to fuel up quickly. But will this be enough to convince people?
Even in Germany, where government is investing in hydrogen, car markers seem to have lost their believe in the fuel cell car. Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi, Mercedes-Benz are announcing one electric car model after another. Only Mercedes has a fuel cell car and announces a new one, a GLC in limited edition of some hundred units, for next year.
At Toyota they have to admit that the public isn’t rushing on fuel cell cars. “But we don’t look at tomorrow”, Guido Roozekrans from Toyota Netherlands says. “It’s about the long term. Only around 2025 it will become interesting. And we will have the technology ready and available.”