Hydrogen cars: new Government funding for fuel cell vehicles

10 May, 2016 5:00pm Joe Finnerty

Hydrogen cars are finally here but what are they, how do they work and should you buy one?

Local authorities, health trusts, police forces, fire brigades and private companies can now bid for £2 million worth of Government funding to add hydrogen-powered vehicles to their fleets.

The money will cover up to 75 per cent of the costs of new vehicles bought by April 2017, as well as the cost of running them for up to 3 years. Support will also be available for the leasing or renting of cars, insurance, hydrogen fuel and servicing.

The fund, launched by the Government’s Office for Low Emission Vehicles, could bring up to 100 more hydrogen fuel cell cars and vans onto UK roads by next spring – the equivalent of tripling the number of vehicles currently in use.

Transport minister Andrew Jones said: "We are always looking at new ways to make the vehicles of the future cleaner, and hydrogen fuel cells are an important part of our vision for almost all cars and vans to be zero-emission by 2050."

Can you really live with a fuel cell car?

Hydrogen is the future. It’ll replace our need for petrol and diesel and save the environment. Two bold statements, but ones that have been made by transport experts for more than a decade – so, is 2016 the year when it becomes reality? With three new fuel-cell models on sale, a UK Government grant in place and funding committed for dedicated and accessible hydrogen refuelling stations, the pieces are starting to fall into place.

But is it really a wise decision to take the plunge right now? To find out what it’s like to live with a fuel-cell vehicle that emits nothing but water, Auto Express took delivery of the Hyundai ix35 for a week and put it through its paces.

The ix35 joins the Honda Clarity FCV and Toyota Mirai as one of three FCVs on sale, and it’s probably the least conspicuous. Take off the fuel cell decals, and it looks like the regular ix35, whereas the Mirai and FCX Clarity have gone for a more futuristic approach with their respective designs. Anonymity is part of the Hyundai’s appeal, as is the fact it feels like a regular car from behind the wheel. Sure, the steering is a little heavier through corners, yet that’s offset by the instant acceleration delivered from a standing start and the exceptional interior refinement – the likes of which you’d expect if you were in an electric vehicle.

It’s not our first experience living with an alternatively fuelled vehicle, either. We reported on our week with an LPG-powered car, and we’ve spent months with pure electric, plug-ins and range extender models.

• Best hybrid cars to buy now

After driving EVs, range anxiety is nothing new to us. Our time living with the Hyundai – which took in a mixture of city driving and long-distance trips – brought a new type of worry, though. The ix35 claims to have a range of anything up to 400 miles, thus giving you pretty much free rein to go where you want. However, driving on the motorway at 70mph for 60 miles really hurt that performance and the trip computer was soon telling us we had just 200 miles left.

It still sounds like a decent amount when you consider a Nissan Leaf will cover just 100 miles on a full charge, but run low in a battery car, and the worst you have to do is stop for a few hours and plug it in to the growing network of chargers. And with a range extender like the BMW i3, you can simply head to a petrol station if it all goes wrong.

And that’s the real issue with hydrogen. If you’re running low, you’re unlikely to be able to refuel anywhere convenient or close – there are just four publicly accessible sites in the UK with several more operational on private land.

We’d scheduled a refuelling stop in the middle of our week at the site near Heathrow Airport, and while we’d planned our journey time, by the time we got to our topping-up destination, the fuel light was flashing. That wasn’t helped by the trip computer range estimate dropping 10 miles from when we parked the Hyundai at night and got in it the next day. In total, we’d managed a disappointing 227 miles – and most of that had been run in Eco-mode to eke out as many miles as possible.

Best electric cars

Still, the process of refuelling is very easy, as it mirrors the way you’d fill up a traditional petrol or diesel car. The whole process takes a few minutes – you just lock in the pipe and wait until you hit the brim. Beware running it too low before fuelling, though, as the hydrogen won’t refill properly due to a lack of back-pressure in the tank.

Robin Hayles, Hyundai’s special vehicle manager, has driven 8,000 miles in this ix35, and he admitted that this infrastructure remains the biggest problem: “If you can’t fill a car up, then you simply can’t use it.”

But this will change – and soon. A Government-readiness project means station expansion is already underway, and by the end of this year, there will be 12 to 14 consumer-facing outlets – a further three will be funded by the EU.

Jump ahead to 2020, and it’s estimated that we’ll have 65 stations across the UK covering most major areas, which will make day-to-day living much easier. Ben Madden, from Element Energy consultancy and UK energy projects, told Auto Express: “Once we get to that point, we’d expect it to be easier to build stations and it will mushroom, driven by the private sector. It’s going to be a difficult phase, but then it gets easier and easier.

“I’m confident for the first set of stations, but the second lot needs a collective will from manufacturers and investors, plus it requires Government help.”

Our week with the ix35 – which totalled 303 miles – also took us down to a certain flat-packed furniture store in Croydon and revealed there’s no compromise to storage with a hydrogen car: there aren’t any hefty tanks taking up valuable boot space.

One concern many motorists do point to with hydrogen is safety and worries about a repeat of the Hindenburg airship disaster from the thirties. However, these are misplaced, as Hayles explained: “The tanks are rated twice as highly [as required] from a safety perspective – you won’t damage one of these in a road accident. It’s an unfair comparison, too, because people get into a petrol car and don’t think about sitting on 50 litres of volatile fuel as they accept this as a danger – hydrogen is no different.”

• Opinion: "For most motorists today, hydrogen cars are irrelevant - and probably always will be"

Aside from infrastructure, the hydrogen car will live and die by running costs. At this moment in time, purchase prices are high, although they will undoubtedly fall – just as they have for hybrids – plus there’s the Government grant. Electric cars can run for as little as 2p per mile, yet hydrogen vehicles won’t match that. Our car delivered 227 miles on 5.6kg of gas, which set us back £56 (hydrogen costs around £10 per kg). That’s pricier than a petrol or diesel in terms of miles per pound, plus you have to refill more often.

Range won’t change, as the tech under the bonnet can’t be refined much further – if you need to do more miles, the simple solution is to fit a bigger tank. What will make it more appealing is the price of hydrogen. As more cars hit the road, the hope is that the gas will fall to about £7 per kg, which will make it a more appealing financial decision.

All this prompts Hayles to declare “the days of the traditionally fuelled vehicles are numbered in terms of the mass market”. We can’t really argue given political and environmental policy, but the question remains whether hydrogen really is the answer. Our week with the fuel hasn’t left us convinced that hydrogen will overtake plug-in hybrids and battery electrics any time soon.

What is a hydrogen car?

Hydrogen cars are basically electric cars. They have electric motors that drive the wheels just like an electric car but the difference lies in the battery. Whereas an electric car stores its electricity in a conventional battery (usually lithium ion or nickel metal hydride), hydrogen cars store their electricity in the form of hydrogen and convert it back to electricity in what’s known as a fuel cell.

A hydrogen fuel cell creates a chemical reaction with the hydrogen that generates electricity, water and heat. Just like an electric car, there are no harmful exhaust emissions. 

The key advantage of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle over a pure electric vehicle is that it can be refuelled with more hydrogen in seconds, just as you would fill an internal combustion-engined car with petrol or diesel. There’s no long delay while you recharge a battery.       

Is hydrogen fuel cell technology green?

Hydrogen fuel cell cars have no exhaust emissions so they’re great for the kind of local pollutants that contribute to poor air quality in cities around the world. 

Nitrogen oxide, particulates, soot, black carbon, all the nasty stuff churned from the exhausts of petrol and diesel cars that people would rather keep out of their lungs is completely absent from a fuel cell vehicles. You just get a dribble of clean water (that you could drink, if you were absolutely desperate). 

Best low emissions green cars

Of course, there’s more to being green that eliminating exhaust emissions. The hydrogen to power hydrogen cars has to come from somewhere and to produce it in the quantities needed to run significant numbers of cars you’d need a lot of electricity. As with pure electric cars, if that electricity is generated from zero-emissions sources like solar, tidal or wind, a hydrogen fuel cell car can be truly zero emissions in its use phase.

If the electricity to make the hydrogen is generated from coal-fired power stations the green credentials are somewhat less impressive, and a lot more difficult to calculate. It’s a similar story with the whole-life emissions of fuel cell cars, the environmental effect of building and disposing of them in significant numbers is difficult to put a figure on for such a new technology.

It’s worth remembering that fuel cell powertrains are much more efficient at getting energy out of fuel that petrol or diesel engines. Where you could expect an internal combustion-engined car to get 20 to 25% of the energy out or its petrol or diesel, fuel cells can use around 60% of the energy contained in their hydrogen fuel, so the core efficiency of the technology is very strong.    

Could a hydrogen car make sense in the UK?

The idea of driving a hydrogen fuel cell car in the UK is quite compelling, the reality is a little more problematic.

The key issue in the ‘against’ column is a complete absence of the kind of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure that would be needed for people to use hydrogen cars effectively in this country. 

There are currently 11 hydrogen refuelling stations in the UK and 4 are available to the public so unless you happen to be close to one (and even if you do), shelling out over £65k on a Toyota Mirai would be a very bold move indeed. Although this will be cheaper if you're a fleet or business owner with the Government offering 75 per cent off purchase and the first three years of ownership.

BMW plans fuel cell production car by 2020

If we ignore the chronic shortage of opportunities to fill them up with hydrogen in the UK, the fuel cell car does make a lot of sense. The hydrogen tank puts an end to long waits while the battery recharges and can give a range of up to 300 miles.

If the idea of driving around in your car accompanied by a tank of highly compressed hydrogen conjures up the grainy footage of the Hindenburg, fear not. Hydrogen is actually a very safe fuel. If it leaks it rises into the atmosphere so quickly that combustion is very unlikely and the tanks used in cars have been extensively safety tested. 

Meanwhile, the driving experience is basically that of an electric car, all but silent with an instant hit of acceleration when you need it. 

Can I buy a hydrogen car now?

Hydrogen cars do make more sense in countries with a more advanced hydrogen infrastructure than the UK’s and three models have gone on sale to the public, Hyundai’s ix35 FCEV, Honda Clarity FCV and the Toyota Mirai. 

There are also a number of other companies working on hydrogen vehicle technology and we’re likely to see the fruits of this labour emerging onto the market soon. We’ve been treated to prototypes including the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-Cell, the BMW 5 Series GT FCEV, Nissan’s TeRRA FCV and the VW Passat Hymotion

What do you think of hydrogen cars? Will hydrogen tech be the future for the motor industry? Let us know in the comments section below...

For more breaking car news and reviews, subscribe to Auto Express - available as a weekly magazine and on your iPad. We'll give you 6 issues for £1 and a free gift!