According to statements made by Prof Dr Thomas Weber – Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG – at the Frankfurt Motorshow: Hydrogen fuel cells is the future for clean transport, with plug in electric vehicles mainly as small city cars.
I agree that hybrid, fuel cell and EV technologies all have relevance in the future of road transport, but if I had to pick a technology that will be most pivotal, especially for personal transport: I still think that battery/plug-in EVs is it.
Fuel cell vehicles are electric vehicles with a fuel cell instead of a battery. The fundamental difference is that plug-in battery EVs store electricity and require charging, whereas fuel cell vehicles generate electricity from gas and require re-filling.
Both need an infrastructure either to charge or to fuel, and hydrogen fuels cells would seem attractive because the infrastructure (fuel stations) already exist, and it would be cheap to add another fuel, just as they added unleaded and then LPG in the past. Plus thy don’t have the existing range restrictions that EVs currently suffer.
But I would argue that the charging network for EVs already exists too: it’s called the grid – electricity is practically everywhere. So the issue is range anxiety and charge times, plus long-term battery life and cost of batteries.
As Dr Weber says: “Electrification will take place, but not without a combustion engine for 20 or 30 years”
He also says “Our decision [to delay launch of a fuel cell B-Class car] was based on the infrastructure situation. We have shifted it a few years to 2016 or 2017… …Technology-wise we are nearly ready, but where are the fuel stations?”
“This gives us time to develop a common drivetrain, which makes a lot of sense because the volumes will be higher and the costs lower, and push on the infrastructure situation… …Toyota will step in and now Volkswagen has said it is no longer against the fuel cell. In the long run it is the best solution because range is no longer a topic.”
Range may no longer be a topic, but the fuel station infrastructure clearly still is, plus the cost of the technology, not to mention the source, safe handling and production of the fuel.
If it is a case of battery EVs vs fuel cells, then it may well boil down to how fast the OEMs can improve EV battery life, charge speeds and battery costs, whilst the utilities and integrators address the charge point issues: and whether this can happen at a faster pace than the likes of Mercedes can reduce the cost of fuel cells, and also roll out enough Hydrogen re-fuel points to make fuel cell relevant for the majority of personal transport requirements.
My guess is that they wont – EVs have the head start advantage that will see consumer adoption, and charge point roll-outs in towns and shopping centers to the point that Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will become a solution only for special circumstances: heavy goods, very long journeys.
The range issues will be resolved over time, and actually, according to the recent EU JRC Institute for Institute for Energy and Transport report; the vast majority of personal transport requirements already sit within the current EV range limits anyway, especially if the drivers can charge at work, in town at at the destinations they need to reach.
But it isn’t a case of battery vs fuel cell - both have a role to play and how we utilize each to their strength is what we should be focusing on, rather making polarizing statements.
An alternative view to Prof Dr Thomas Weber’s: fuel cells become a niche solution for EV owners wanting to do longer journeys – i.e. EV battery/fuel cell hybrid. See a great example here, of a portable fuel cell: SFC Energy reveals pre-series edition of 50w jenny military fuel cell
I would suggest that Hydrogen fuel cells are a long-term mobility solution, not the long term solution. And unless there is an unexpected step-change advancement in a particular technology such as fuel cells; then battery/plug-in EVs will be a bigger part of the future transport landscape. Battery swapping may be a more practical short term solution to bridge the range anxiety issue.
So if Prof Dr Thomas Weber has been quoted correctly, and the inferred preference for hydrogen fuel cells over battery EVs continues at Mercedes, then we differ in opinion. That’s fine, but looking at the bigger picture: we have a major OEM car manufacturer choosing to pursue a completely different technological solution, which requires a completely different infrastructure investment and set of political support and policy framework at very level.
Prof Dr Thomas Weber is polarizing the situation by openly stating a preference for one technology over another, which is unlikely to be a good thing for clean vehicle industry as a whole. It’s not a sensible comparison and it’s an argument that shouldn’t really exist, except to add credibility to the anti-EV press and their supporters.
At least Mercedes are developing battery EVs technology in the mean time (rather impressively in the case of the SLS Electric Drive), and if fuel cells are going to be part of the mix in the way I think they will: then that re-fuel infrastructure is needed anyway.
The OEMs occupy the most influential position in the clean vehicles value-chain: they hold the reigns for the industry as a whole – they are massive employers and hugely important to the economies of the biggest of the developed nations so have a big lobbying influence on government and regional policy. They spend the huge investments in technology and are the main buyers in the value chain. And they decide what products to put in front of consumers and their influence on consumer behavior is also massive due to the huge marketing and consumer research departments.
You have to wonder why Mercedes want to stir a debate that shouldn’t be a debate at all.
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