The first mass production hydrogen cars, billed for more than a decade as a clean alternative to petrol and diesel vehicles but only glimpsed as concepts at automotive trade shows, have arrived on British roads.
The most abundant element in the universe has added allure for carmakers in the wake of the Volkswagen pollution scandal and revelations about the gap between lab and real-world emissions tests.
Leading the charge are South Korean manufacturer Hyundai, with a £53,000 “crossover” – a squashed SUV that looks like a normal car, and the world’s biggest carmaker, Toyota, with a futuristically styled saloon priced at £66,000. Honda has promised to launch its model in the UK during 2017.
“The only emissions out of the back of the car is water, either as water vapour or droplets, so you have no CO2, no NOx, no particulates,” said Robin Hayles, manager of sustainable fuel development at Hyundai.
“You have the advantages of petrol and diesel in terms of range, performance and refill times, and the advantages of an electric vehicle: zero emissions, very smooth to drive, and instant torque.”
The NOx pollution emitted by diesel engines – which VW’s 11m affected cars underplayed – has led to the UK breaching EU pollution safety limits since 2010. It is expected to be blamed for a doubling of the UK’s current 30,000 annual premature deaths from pollution in a report out next month.
Those buying or leasing the hydrogen cars to tackle that pollution are companies involved in the infrastructure to power them and businesses such as taxi firms looking to advertise their green credentials. Organisations such as Transport for London, which powers one of its routes with eight hydrogen buses, have also bought them.
Hyundai or Toyota have not sold a single car to an individual consumer. That might be partly explained by the fact that even after an EU-funded £15,000 grant, these first hydrogen cars cost around twice as much as most of the electric cars they are competing against as a clean alternative to diesel and petrol.
Nearly 7,000 “pure electric” cars have been registered in the UK this year, including the £21,000 Nissan Leaf and £31,000 BMW i3. Such cars cost about a quarter of the cost of petrol and diesels per mile travelled, while the new hydrogen models cost a similar amount to refuel as conventional cars.
However, the future of a £5,000 government grant to reduce the upfront cost of electric and hydrogen cars is in doubt after February next year – its fate will be decided in this month’s autumn statement.
Hydrogen backers cite the cars’ range and quick refuelling as two reasons they will win out against their battery-based rivals. While Telsa’s electric sports car will run for nearly 300 miles between charges, most electric cars have a range of around 100 miles. Hyundai’s hydrogen car runs for a more petrol-like distance of more than 360 miles.
“Mainstream EV [electrical vehicles] isn’t quite there yet,” said Neil Spires, product manager for Mirai at Toyota, which believes while electric cars are fit for inner city use, the future belongs to hydrogen cars. Globally, Toyota is producing 700 Mirai this year, with 3,000 next year, most of them for sale in its home market of Japan.
But in the UK there are question marks over where those drivers will fill up with gas, which takes around three minutes compared to 30 for even the most rapid electric charging points. There are currently just four public refuelling stations in the UK, in locations including Hendon, Heathrow, Swindon, that rely on hydrogen deliveries by tankers.
A newly opened station in Sheffield uses a greener method: a wind turbine that produces hydrogen from water via electrolysis.
“That’s the holy grail,” said Spires, though he added that even when the hydrogen is made from natural gas, as more than 90% of it is in the UK, it was more environmentally friendly than oil. “You still have a positive story there, even with ‘brown hydrogen’.”
The industry says the total number of stations will rise to around nine or 10 by the end of 2016.
“That is the biggest challenge [infrastructure] we have,” said Hayles. “Hydrogen’s always been 10 years away, but it’s not 10 years anymore – the car’s there, the station’s there. It’s just [what we need to do is] giving the confidence to all the parties necessary to make sure it’s adopted at much wider scale.”
Hydrogen who’s who
How it works: hydrogen from tanks onboard the car is combined with oxygen taken from the surrounding air, and combined in a fuel cell for an electrochemical reaction that creates electricity. That is then used in an electric motor to turn the car’s wheels, with the resulting H2O emitted from a tailpipe.
Production car: Mirai
How many: 12 in UK by end of 2015. Producing 700 globally in 2015.
Range: 342 miles
Technology: fuel cell, 114kW motor and nickel-metal hydride battery
Production car: ix35
How many: TBC
Range: 369 miles
Technology: fuel cell, 100kW motor and lithium-ion polymer battery
Production car: FCV Clarity (fourth generation)
How many: TBC
Range: 435 miles
Technology: fuel cell, 130kW motor and lithium-ion battery
Price: TBC (on sale in European markets in 2016, UK in 2017)