My colleague James Ruppert will be pleased to hear that yesterday, in the basement of the Institute of Civil Engineers, I had an automotive revelation. I was at a meeting of what’s called UKH2Mobility, an umbrella name for a government-sponsored gathering of industry and academia, all of whom are working to make Hydrogen a serious fuel of the future.
Michael Fallon, the government Business and Enterprise minister, made soothing noises about £400m in public money being used to, er, oil the wheels of the future Hydrogen fuel network. The money will also be used to make sure that the UK is developing the technologies needed for a gradual switch to cars powered by fuel cells.
Yeah, I know. We’ve heard it all before. Brave new low-Co2 world and all that. However, it was just a throw-away remark by Toyota’s Akihito Tanke that electric cars had not been received by the public as well as had been hoped.
It was then that I realised the car industry has pretty much given up with battery-powered - though not electrically-driven - cars. Slow EV sales in the US - which was expected to be a big early-adopter market - have left bosses with an expensive sinking feeling. Just under 15,000 EVs were shifted in 2012, a vanishing small percent of the 14m new cars that arrived on the US roads.
I’ve now spoken to enough people in the industry to realise that the EV is never going to become a serious force in the market. And I’ve personally experienced the reasons why when I ran a Nissan Leaf long-term test car.
First, you can’t change your mind. I was hurtling towards Gatwick, late for a flight. Expecting to miss it, I thought I would find a flight from another airport. But the Leaf couldn’t get me to Luton or Stansted. Secondly, the terrible range in cold weather was a serious problem. On a snowy weekend it dropped to just 41 miles on a full charge. I get the sense that this issue is killing the EV anywhere outside Orange County.
At first glance, you might say the same for the long-promised Hydrogen revolution. But I heard some very intriguing ideas at the conference. It’s claimed that a fuel cell is twice as energy-efficient as a conventional engine and refuelling for a 300-mile range should take three minutes. A network of fuelling stations will be rolled out along the country’s busiest routes.
It was also pointed out to me that charging even three or four electric cars puts a huge load on the local power network, which might require expensive upgrading. Hydrogen, by contrast, will be its own, bespoke, fuelling network.
Can it work? Well, I’ve had the fortune to drive a number of fuel cells vehicles (including the Merc B-Class and the Honda FCX, which I drove to London’s City Hall) and they are a compelling proposition. Like all electrically-driven vehicles, they are quick, smooth, torquey and very refined. Looked at just from a driving point of view, electrically-driven cars are a goal absolutely worth pursuing.
We’ve got a good decade left of the internal combustion engine reigning supreme. As one UKH2Mobility delegate put it to me, by 2025 ‘every last drop of energy efficiency will have been wrung from conventional internal combustion engines’ and the world really will be ready for a leap into the future. But it won’t involve battery-powered cars.