Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has said the fuel might be more suitable than battery-electric power for its largest SUVs as it works to cut emissions. “If you’re not careful, you end up with such big batteries [with EVs], you make it so heavy that when you race down the autobahn, the range disappears. So other technologies could come into play, potentially hydrogen,” said Nick Rogers, JLR’s head of engineering.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles emit nothing but water vapour, have a long range (414 miles for the Nexo) and can be filled almost as quickly as a petrol or diesel car. As the scale of the challenge to persuade us out of user-friendly combustionengined cars into EVs becomes clear, might fast-fill hydrogen be a better zero-emissions bet?
Not so fast, warns Carlos Tavares, CEO of the PSA Group. “Now people see EVs are going to be difficult, they are going to say: ‘Oh, what about hydrogen?’ You’re going to see lots of headlines about hydrogen and everyone’s going to have a hydrogen project,” he said at the Frankfurt motor show in September. Despite Tavares’ reluctance to be dictated to by headlines, the PSA Group has its own hydrogen project (the 2021 van), but Tavares warned that it would be “very expensive”.
Cost has always been a drag on fuel cells, which currently use around 30g-60g of the precious metal platinum on every stack. BMW has said a fuel-cell powertrain is currently still around 10 times more expensive than an equivalent electric one.
Other hurdles remain. It might be zero emissions at the tailpipe, but splitting water into hydrogen – the most common method of creating it – demands a lot of electricity. “It only makes sense if you’re creating hydrogen with renewable energy,” said Rogers. His predecessor, Wolfgang Ziebart, called fuel cells “complete nonsense” back in 2016 because of their poor ‘wheel-to-well’ carbon emissions.
The refuelling infrastructure is in desperate need of expansion. The UK has just 12 stations in operation, according to h2stations.org, and although early adopter California has more than 40, an explosion at a hydrogen production facility in June left many stations there without supply for weeks.
The safety fears haven’t gone away, either. In South Korea, resident groups are opposing new hydrogen filling stations in their neighbourhoods following an explosion in May at a hydrogen storage tank in the city of Gangneung, killing two.