Fuel cell electric vehicles have taken their fair share of hits over the past couple of years, but auto manufacturers are still plugging away at those pesky little buggers. The question is, why? When you consider how far fuel cell EV technology lags behind battery EVs, it looks like the chances are pretty slim for getting a foothold in the personal mobility market of the future.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at a missive that Hyundai issued last Friday under the header “You’ve Got Fuel Cell Questions, We’ve Got Answers.” We’re guessing that it won’t answer your deep-dive questions about FCEV (fuel cell electric vehicle) technology, but it does give you a glimpse into the gray matter that goes into the decision making process, when the deciders decide to keep trucking down the path of what some would call certain automotive doom.
Ten Questions About Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles…
Hyundai put out the fuel cell document in response to an open call for answers from our friends over at Green Car Reports, in the form of an article titled “10 Questions On Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Cars To Ask Toyota, Honda & Hyundai.”
The occasion for the Q-and-A is the rollout of FCEVs and hydrogen fueling infrastructure in the high profile California market.
Hyundai is leading off its California venture with a crossover, the 2015 fuel cell Tucson (our sister site Gas2.org has been following that rollout, btw). If you usually think of small and light when you think of EVs, a crossover might seem like an odd choice for a launch, but keep the crossover thing in mind as you take a look at Hyundai’s answers.
…And One Answer
The whole thing is a quick read (it’s just a 12-page brochure), but for those of you on the go Hyundai’s answers boil down to a point we’ve brought up previously, which is that it’s too early in the alternative fuel game to put the kibosh on promising technologies:
No single, low-carbon powertrain solution can totally satisfy the wide-ranging expectations our consumers take for granted. Instead, a portfolio of alternative-fuel powertrains is necessary to ensure every consumer can find the right low-carbon vehicle solution for their needs, without compromises to their lifestyle or driving behavior.
Briefly, Hyundai doesn’t see how BEV (battery electric vehicle) technology alone can provide the kind of flexibility and lifecycle performance potential of fuel cells, given a market that covers everything from subcompacts to crossovers, minivans, pickup trucks and larger vehicles.
If you look inside the brain of an auto buyer you’ll see a long series of want it – need it calculations, and crossovers seem to be finding just the right pitch for many consumers (check out Ford’s best-selling Edge, for example). Being larger and heavier, under today’s battery EV technology a crossover requires a larger battery pack and a longer charging time. That’s why we’re guessing that Hyundai sees at least a level playing field for fuel cells in that category.
Make That Ten Answers
With that crossover sector of the market in mind, here’s a brief recap of the Q-and-A.
Questions 1, 2, and 3 cover the limitations of marketing a vehicle without a mature refueling infrastructure. Hyundai notes that the battery EV market has suffered under similar constraints for well over 100 years. On its part, Hyundai’s business model is designed to take a shortcut to the mass market through a lease-only deal that includes unlimited service and refueling for the life of the lease. That enables Hyundai to focus on customers who already have reasonably convenient access to hydrogen fuel stations right now (that also takes care of Question 5, btw), and it practically guarantees a happy experience for early adopters.
As for the lease model, that enables fleet rollover and it could become a permanent feature in Hyundai’s plans until fuel cell technology matures. Let’s note that when the Department of Defense recently plunged into the alternative vehicle market with a huge 500-unit EV buy, it went with leasing over buying in anticipation of improved technology coming onto the market sooner rather than later.
Question 4 addresses whether the quick-fueling advantage of FCEVs evaporates once battery EV technology bumps up to the long range, quick charge level, defined as 250 miles with an 80 percent recharge in 12-15 minutes. That’s a possibility, but Hyundai notes that battery EV technology will have to overcome a number of obstacles, including the cost of upgraded batteries, the impact of quick charging on battery lifespan, and the availability of quick-charging stations.
We already covered Question 5 (see above). Questions 6 and 7 ask Hyundai to address why the FCEV tech and refueling does not garner the vociferous consumer/stakeholder/taxpayer support that the battery EV sector currently enjoys (Tesla, much?). Hyundai anticipates that the FCEV sector will catch up once the vehicles start hitting the market.
The Q-and-A really gets into the meat of things with Questions 8, 9, and 10, which deal with the amount of energy needed to propel a battery EV compared to an FCEV, the wells-to-wheels energy comparison, and the lifecycle carbon emissions comparison.
For 8 and 9, Hyundai concedes that FCEVs don’t fare so well under a simple propulsion scenario, but they make up for it in the wells-to-wheels category. That brings in the issue of sourcing hydrogen from fossil natural gas, but Hyundai notes that in California, hydrogen production is mandated to come from at least 33 percent renewable sources.
In narrow terms, sources such as solar-powered water splitting and renewable biogas are not as efficient as fossil gas sources, but Hyundai argues that renewable hydrogen sources make up for it in terms of grid flexibility. Hyundai’s point is that when millions of battery EVs flood the market, you’re going to wish you could balance that out with a more nimble means of storing and distributing energy for personal mobility.
In the answer for Question 10, Hyundai brings up some evidence that lifecycle carbon emissions for manufacturing FCEVs are lower than for battery EVs. The company also points out that the recycling potential for the platinum catalyst typically used in fuel cells follows a much smoother path than the lithium used in conventional EV batteries.
Bottom line: Hyundai makes a pretty good case that FCEVs should get the same chance for cracking into the market that battery EVs have gotten. Let’s also note that battery EVs made a good run for it when the auto market first developed in the 19th century, only to stumble catastrophically by the early 20th century.
What do you think — do FCEVs need another 100 years of development and a stumble or two before they can compete with either battery EVs or gasmobiles? Drop us a note in the comment thread.
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