In May 2021, Toyota revealed to the world that its new second-generation Mirai fuel cell vehicle had traveled 1,003 kilometers (623 miles) on a single tank of fuel — with 9 kilometers remaining — demonstrating a hydrogen-powered vehicles unique selling point.
This week, Mercedes announced that its battery-powered prototype Vision EQXX could travel 1,008 kilometers on a single charge – with a remaining range of about 140 kilometers – suggesting that fuel-cell vehicles don’t have super range.
Toyota’s 1,000-kilometer effort — in a car with an official real-world range of 402 miles (647 kilometers) — requires “an eco-friendly way of driving, but not a special technology that everyday drivers can’t apply.” The company said, but did not say how long it took the four different drivers.
Mercedes’ 1,000km — on a vehicle that claims an actual range of more than 1,000km — was done in 11 and a half hours, and its route through the Swiss Alps, including road works, averaged 87.4 kilometres per hour (54.3mph).
But perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Vision EQXX isn’t its range — after all, there are already several Electric Vehicles on the market with longer range than the Mirai — but its efficiency.
The Toyota Mirai has a longer range than its only fuel cell production rival, the Hyundai Nexo, covering 1,000 kilometers on 5.6 kilograms of hydrogen, which contains 186.6 kWh of usable energy. Mercedes uses just 87 kilowatt-hours of electricity on the road, making it twice as efficient as its own Electric Vehicles and Tesla’s long-range Model S.
This means that it would be twice as cheap to run as today’s serially produced Electric Vehicles.
“Rather than simply increasing the size of the battery, the cross-functional, international team focused on maximising long-distance efficiency,” said Mercedes-Benz. “They pulled out all the stops in drivetrain efficiency, energy density, aerodynamics and lightweight design.”
Yet while Mercedes has no plans for the Vision EQXX to enter commercial production, the company explains: “This new blueprint for automotive engineering has delivered a new benchmark for electric vehicle efficiency and range, and the technology in the Vision EQXX will be deployed in upcoming series-production Mercedes vehicles.”
So if range is no longer a winning argument for fuel-cell cars, what is?
And they certainly don’t gain in environmental friendliness, since most of the world’s hydrogen available for fuel comes from grey H2, which is made from unabated natural gas.
“Toyota gives the new Mirai fuel consumption at 0.86kgH2/100km, so running on grey H2 the Mirai emits around 94gCO2/km, whilst the Nexo (1kgH2/100km) emits around 109gCO2/km,” wrote analyst IDTechEx in February. “These figures are only a marginal improvement on the CO2 tailpipe emissions of modern combustion engines.”
The only way hydrogen cars make sense — assuming they run on green H2 — is if you can’t charge an Electric Vehicle at home, it can be topped up with a pump much faster than at a public Electric Vehicle charging station. At least for now. Last year, Swiss tech giant ABB unveiled a 360kW charger that it said was “capable of fully charging any electric vehicle in 15 minutes or less”.
“It is a brave government that commits to large public spending to support the purchase of fuel cell vehicles on the promise that one day the fuel will be available to make them low emission… there are substantial production and distribution challenges to overcome to make H2 a cost-effective zero-emission automotive fuel,” said IDTechEx.
Fuel cell vehicles have lost their previous advantages in range and fast charging and are unlikely to remain competitive with battery-powered electric vehicles, an independent German research institute said.
The urgency of the climate crisis means the world should focus on accelerating the rollout of battery-powered cars and fast-charging infrastructure, rather than hydrogen fuel cell cars and trucks and hydrogen refueling stations, according to a study in the journal Nature Electronics.
“Hydrogen will play a vital role in industry, shipping and synthetic aviation fuels. But for road transport, we cannot, I believe, wait for hydrogen technology to catch up, and our focus now should be on battery electric vehicles in both passenger and freight transport,” writes Dr Patrick Plötz, co-ordinator of the energy economy business unit at the Fraunhofer Institute for Systems and Innovation Research (ISI) in Germany.
As far as Plötz is concerned, “the window of opportunity to establish a relevant market share for hydrogen cars is as good as closed”.
He noted that early last year, there were about 25,000 hydrogen fuel cell vehicles on the road, with two FCEV models available for sale (Toyota Mirai and Hyundai Nexo), and about 540 hydrogen fueling stations in operation worldwide.
“In contrast, by the beginning of 2022, there are likely to be about 15 million battery electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles on the road across the world. Almost all manufacturers now sell such vehicles, with more than 350 models available globally,” Plötz says
While the majority of battery electric vehicle drivers currently charge at home, as of 2020, some 1.3 million public charging stations are in operation – a quarter of which are fast chargers (at least 22 kW) while there are 300 kW chargers at 1,000 public charging stations now available in Europe.
Plötz suggests that recent technological developments mean that FCEVs no longer have a raison d’être.
“When battery electric vehicles had limited ranges of under 150km, and charging took a few hours, there was an important and large market segment for fuel-cell vehicles: long-distance travel. The higher energy density of compressed hydrogen, compared with battery electric vehicles, and the ability to refuel within only a few minutes, made fuel-cell vehicles potentially ideal for frequent long-distance trips. But battery electric vehicles now offer about 400km real-world range and the newest generation use 800V batteries, which can be charged for a range of 200km in about 15 minutes.
He adds: “Many of the ongoing investments in hydrogen cars seem to follow the sunk cost fallacy: we have already spent so much on this technology, let’s not give up now.
“But with economies of scale in full effect for batteries, and with further cost reductions and performance improvement of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure coming, fuel cell cars are highly unlikely to be able to compete.”
The hydrogen-powered truck industry is also less advanced than battery-powered trucks, Plotz said, noting that there are 30,000 battery-electric trucks in stock globally, most of them in China.
“Fuel cell electric trucks, on the other hand, have only been operated in test trials (from two manufacturers) to date and are not yet commercially available,” he explains, adding that more than 150 battery electric truck models have already been announced for medium and heavy freight.
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