Leading German car producers are developing hydrogen fuel-cell prototypes as battery power may not be the only solution in a future without fossil fuels.
Battery-powered cars certainly have the first mover advantage in volume, infrastructure and cost. Tesla has set a pace that has other carmakers struggling to follow.
Yet some industry leaders are already hedging their bets for a future envisioned by lawmakers where hydrogen fuels could be much more prevalent.
Transport uses for clean-burning hydrogen have been targeted to larger-load trucks, ships and airplanes, where battery power becomes less economical. Hydrogen use will likely expand beyond transport to include chemicals, fertilizers and steelmaking to simple blending with natural gas to lower emissions.
As the Green party enters the ruling political coalition in Germany, green hydrogen (made using renewable energy) could expand even further.
BMW, a big hydrogen proponent among Germany’s automakers, is charting a path to a mass-market model around 2030 with one eye on shifting hydrogen policies across the EU. The hydrogen prototype car is based on its X5 SUV, and close to 100 vehicles are expected to be built by 2022, Jürgen Guldner, the BMW vice president who heads up the hydrogen fuel-cell car programme told Reuters.
The view is that the hydrogen model will be complementary to future battery models, providing an alternative for those seeking long trips and quick refueling.
“When the future is zero emissions, we believe having two answers is better than one,” Guldner told Reuters.
Another of the country’s major producers, VW’s premium Audi brand, has already assembled a team of more than 100 mechanics and engineers to research hydrogen fuel cells and built a few prototype cars.
BMW and Audi may be hedging their bets on a change in the political climate and an effective ban on fossil fuel cars. For now, however, fuel cell technology remains too costly for mass-market consumer cars. Cells are complex and contain expensive materials, as well as requiring costly refuel infrastructure.
Auto consultancy LMC forecasts that various uses of hydrogen will spur its adoption in passenger cars, but only over the longer term.
LMC estimates that hydrogen fuel-cell models will make up just 0.1% of sales in Europe in 2030, and sales will only take off after 2035. In the future, hydrogen could power more than 400 million cars by 2050.
The main rationale for switching away from gasoline and diesel either by consumer choice or policy edict is to cut emissions. For light-duty use, battery-powered cars linked to growing solar and wind generation have, for the moment, won the debate.
All the same, leading German automakers appear to be hedging their bets for a moment in the future when hydrogen becomes more prevalent and some performance advantages in reliability and distance may be preferred.