Car groups throw spanner in works of EU’s hydrogen drive, which is in contrast to their biggest Asian rivals, Toyota and Hyundai

Industry pours cold water on idea hydrogen can vie with battery power to replace ICEs.

Joe Miller and David Keohane, Financial Times – 3/11/2021, Source:

The lettering "BMW i - Hydrogen Next" can be seen on the front of a BMW X5 equipped with a hydrogen drive. The car is equipped with two 700 bar tanks for a total of 6 kg of hydrogen.
The lettering “BMW i – Hydrogen Next” can be seen on the front of a BMW X5 equipped with a hydrogen drive. The car is equipped with two 700 bar tanks for a total of 6 kg of hydrogen.picture alliance | Getty Images

Europe’s two biggest industrial and economic powers are laying billions on the table in an attempt to take on China in developing a “green” hydrogen sector to replace fossil fuels—but the continent’s top motor groups are wary of going along for the ride.

“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars,” said Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess.

The idea of a big market for vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells is “very optimistic,” according to Diess, who has overseen a €35 billion push into electric cars. “Not even in 10 years,” he told the Financial Times, “because the physics behind it are so unreasonable.”

France and Germany have driven the region’s effort to build a world-leading industry based on the most abundant element in the universe, a pillar of the EU’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Together they have pledged a combined €16 billion to hydrogen power generation technologies, the largest direct public investment in the field by EU countries.

Their carmakers, however, remain unconvinced. VW, the world’s second-biggest by sales, has all but abandoned its hydrogen plans. German rival Mercedes, which invested in hydrogen for decades to no avail, quietly shelved its last passenger car fuel cell project last year, while BMW maintains only a toehold in the technology.

France’s PSA, which has bet heavily on electric vehicle technology, also remains deeply skeptical. Carlos Tavares, the outspoken CEO of the recently formed Stellantis group resulting from the merger of Fiat Chrysler with PSA, even suggested to the FT that “most of the people who have pushed for the hydrogen-powered cars are the ones who are late in the electric vehicles.”

The European carmakers’ stance stands in stark contrast to those of their biggest Asian rivals. Japan’s Toyota, the world leader by sales and whose Mirai launched in 2014 was the first mass-produced hydrogen car, and South Korea’s Hyundai continue to invest heavily, bolstered by state incentives and demand from specific customers such as corporate fleets.

The drivetrain of the Mirai.
Enlarge / The drivetrain of the Mirai.Ian Bott | Financial Times

Strict EU emissions regulations have instead pushed its carmakers to pour tens of billions of euros into battery technology that provides more certainty, establishing global supply chains and building dedicated electric vehicle platforms to bring down costs.

As a rule of thumb, industry executives say that without subsidies carmakers need to sell 100,000 units a year before cost curves start falling. Annual deliveries of hydrogen vehicles in Europe languish in the hundreds.

According to Bernd Heid, a McKinsey analyst, a “ramp-up of both commercial vehicles and passenger cars” powered by hydrogen would be required for the “rapid increase in refilling infrastructure” required to scale up the industry.

However, Renault head of alternative fuels Philippe Prevel said that although hydrogen-powered passenger cars would not be a viable option until 2030 at the earliest, vehicles on fixed routes or closed networks could start to bring costs down before then.

How hydrogen fuel cells work.
Enlarge / How hydrogen fuel cells work.Ian Bott | Financial Times

Benoît Potier, chief executive of France’s Air Liquide, one of the biggest and earliest backers of hydrogen, shares Prevel’s view. “Taxis, buses, trains, boats, light commercial vehicles… I mean, everything that is flying back to a fixed point or going back to a fixed point is a good candidate,” he said.

Europe’s largest trainmakers have already experimented with the technology. The world’s first hydrogen train trundled through rural Germany in 2018 after being unveiled by France’s Alstom, which argues that for routes of more than 120 km hydrogen can be a better solution than batteries. The first hydrogen trains in France will start to roll from 2023.

“Having started in Germany, hydrogen trains are now spreading across Europe and the reason is simple: it’s that all countries are engaged in replacing their fleet of diesel trains, and 50 percent of the rail network in Europe is not electrified,” said Alstom chief executive Henri Poupart-Lafarge. He added that 4,500 to 5,000 regional diesel trains were up for renewal across Europe.

Siemens in November announced a partnership with Deutsche Bahn to develop a regional hydrogen train that can be refueled in 15 minutes. The project offers the potential to decarbonize Germany’s 1,300 diesel-powered trains, which are forced to use the fossil fuel on the 40 percent of the DB network that is not electrified.

“We need to bring our fossil fuel consumption down to zero,” said DB board member Sabina Jeschke, adding that by 2050 the company “won’t have a single diesel-powered train operating in our fleet.”

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