Motor Race - Electric Or Hydrogen?

Electric vehicles and hydrogen powered vehicles are both coming out of the blocks.
Published: Wed 09 Dec 2015

Electric vehicles (EVs) are getting a lot of hype currently, as a zero emission replacement for traditional fossil fuel vehicles.

The numbers on the roads are small so far, at approximately 665,000 or just 0.08% of the total global passenger car stock at the end of 2014, according to the Clean Energy Ministerial’s (CEM) Global EV Outlook 2015. But numbers are growing, especially in the US, which accounts for almost 40% of the EVs globally, and Japan and China, with 16% and 12% respectively.

The EV Outlook states that EVs are important to countries seeking to decarbonize the transport sector. In order to meet the CO2 reductions demanded of the transport sector under the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) scenarios to limit average global temperature increase to 2°C by 2050, three-quarters of all vehicle sales by 2050 would need to be plug-in electric of some type.

Based on the IEA scenarios as well as individual countries’ deployment targets, the CEM Electric Vehicles Initiative seeks to facilitate the global deployment of at least 20 million passenger car EVs, including plug-in hybrid and fuel cell electric vehicles, by 2020.

The EV challenge

Terminology, which has tended to be used haphazardly, is important here, with a clear distinction between battery (only) and battery-hybrid vehicles.

The ongoing concern with battery EVs has been range and it is unlikely, even with innovations such as fast charging or charging on the go, that such propulsion will improve the range both significantly and conveniently. [Wireless Charging To Revolutionize Home Device and EV Use]

Hence also the popularity of the hybrid vehicle combining battery power with a conventional engine, of which some 10 million are believed to have been sold globally. While on the one hand providing zero emissions when battery powered, these vehicles still use fossil fuel with some levels of emissions, although with the hybrid technology the consumption is greatly improved.

A challenge for the wider use of these vehicles is the availability of a battery recharge network, involving deployments at both customer premises and in public locations.

The hydrogen vehicle challenge

Much of the focus in the EV Outlook is on battery and hybrid electric vehicles, but what about hydrogen powered fuel cell vehicles (and fuel cell, battery hybrid vehicles)? Consider this: Toyota, always at the forefront of vehicle innovation, has decided the future lies with fuel cells rather than batteries, particularly for the larger and longer distance vehicles.

The Toyota Mirai, which has been on sale in Japan for about a year and is starting to appear in the US and Europe, is attracting a lot of interest, although sales aren’t expected to be large initially: For example, through 2017 Toyota is planning approximately 3,000 units in the US. And although less publicized than their EVs, many if not all of the auto companies have hydrogen vehicles in various stages of development.

An early objection to hydrogen powered vehicles has been the high carbon footprint required to produce hydrogen. However, with developments of power to gas from renewables, this objection effectively falls away. Like an EV charging network, a network of hydrogen delivery would be required for these vehicles. However, perhaps the biggest challenge currently is the high price of fuel cell technology – in the US the Mirai is almost double the price of the Prius plug-in hybrid, for example.

The future vehicle scenario

Given the aforegoing Engerati’s future vehicle scenario is that pending a major advance in battery technology, battery EVs will find their niche as short distance town/commuter vehicles. As such they can also be made smaller, alleviating growing pressures on parking.

Hybrid EVs will continue to dominate the EV market in the short term with their greater range and the rollout of charging infrastructure. However, they will be strongly challenged by hydrogen vehicles as the technology matures and prices drop as these come on the market over the next two years.

Like the co-existence of petrol and diesel vehicles, there is undoubtedly room for both types. But which will show greater long term growth will depend on which is most cost effective and has the wider refueling network. Hybrid EVs have a head start but while an EV charging network has no application beyond the EVs, a hydrogen network has potential to serve other parts of the economy and therefore an added imperative to build out. As such our money is on the hydrogen vehicle.

Further reading

CEM Electric Vehicles Initiative: Global EV Outlook 2015