FOCUS-German automotive giants rely on hydrogen cars

By Nick Carey

MUNICH, Sept. 22 (Reuters) – Battery power could be the precursor to becoming the automotive technology of the future, but let’s not rule out neglected hydrogen.

This is the view of some major automakers, including BMW and Audi, who are developing prototypes of hydrogen fuel cell passenger vehicles alongside their fleets of battery cars as part of preparations to move away from fuels. fossils.

They are hedging their bets, calculating that a change in political winds could tip the scales in favor of hydrogen in an industry shaped by Tesla’s decision to take the battery route to cleaning cars.

The global automotive hub, Germany, is the center of attention. He is already betting billions on hydrogen fuel in sectors like steel and chemicals to meet the climate targets and a close election this month could see the Greens enter the coalition government and push the technology further.

BMW is the biggest proponent of hydrogen among German automakers, paving the way for a mass market model around 2030. The company also has an eye on the evolution of hydrogen policies in Europe and China, the largest automotive market in the world.

The Munich-based premium actor has developed a prototype hydrogen car based on its X5 SUV, in a project already partially funded by the German government.

BMW vice president Jürgen Guldner who heads the hydrogen fuel cell car program told Reuters the automaker will build a test fleet of nearly 100 cars in 2022.

“Whether this (technology) is driven by policy or demand, we’ll be ready with a product,” he said, adding that his team was already working on the development of the next generation of vehicles.

“We are on the verge of getting there and we are really confident that we will see a breakthrough in this decade,” he said.

VW’s premium brand Audi told Reuters it had assembled a team of more than 100 mechanics and engineers who researched hydrogen fuel cells on behalf of the entire Volkswagen Group and built a few prototypes of cars.


Hydrogen is considered a safe bet by the world’s largest truck manufacturers, such as Daimler Truck, the unit of Daimler AG, Volvo Trucks and Hyundai, because the batteries are too heavy for long-haul commercial vehicles.

Yet fuel cell technology – where hydrogen is passed through a catalyst, producing electricity – is currently too expensive for mainstream cars. Batteries are complex and contain expensive materials, and although refueling is faster than recharging batteries, infrastructure is scarce.

The fact that hydrogen is so far behind in the race for the affordable market also means that even some tech champions, like the German Greens, prioritize battery-powered passenger cars as they see them as the fastest way to get to the market. ” achieve their main objective of decarbonization. transport.

The Greens, however, support the use of hydrogen fuel for ships and planes and want to invest heavily in “green” hydrogen produced only from renewable sources.

“Hydrogen will play a very important role in the transport industry,” said Stefan Gelbhaar, party spokesman for transport policy in the Bundestag.

Politics can be unpredictable, however – diesel has gone from saint to sin in the wake of Volkswagen’s Dieselgate emissions fraud scandal, which erupted in 2015. Some automakers are seeing hydrogen technology as an insurance policy while the EU aims for an effective ban on fossil fuel cars from 2035..

Last year, Daimler announced it would halt production of the Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL, a hydrogen fuel cell SUV, but a source close to the company’s plans said the project could easily be revived if the European Commission or a German government with Green participation decide to promote hydrogen cars.

“We focus on electricity (battery-powered) first, but we cooperate closely with our truckers,” said Jörg Burzer, production manager at Daimler, when asked about this approach.

“The technology is always available.


For years, Japanese automakers Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and South Korean Hyundai, were the only ones to develop and promote hydrogen fuel cell cars, but now they have company.

China is expanding its hydrogen fueling infrastructure, with several automakers now working on fuel cell cars, including Great Wall Motor, which plans to develop SUVs that run on hydrogen.

The EU wants to build more hydrogen refueling stations for commercial vehicles. Fitch Solutions automotive analyst Joshua Cobb said the bloc will likely not start pushing hydrogen passenger cars for two to three years, given he is still figuring out how to pay for his battery-electric car and how to get it. sufficient “green” hydrogen from renewable sources.

But he added: “It is not forbidden to think that if the (German) Greens come to power, they could step up the push to pass regulations favoring hydrogen fuel cell cars.”

BMW’s Guldner acknowledged that hydrogen technology was too expensive to be viable for the consumer market today, but said costs would decline as trucking companies invest in the technology to bring vehicles to market. large-scale fuel cell.

To demonstrate BMW’s X5 hydrogen prototype, Guldner ran Reuters at 180 km (112 miles) per hour on the highway near the automaker’s headquarters in Munich and gave it enough fuel in a matter of minutes. travel 500 km using a hydrogen pump at a Total Gas Station.

Guldner said BMW sees hydrogen fuel cell cars as “complementary” to its future line of battery-powered electric models, providing an alternative for customers who can’t charge at home, want to travel far and refuel quickly. . The engine of the hydrogen X5 is the same as that of BMW’s all-electric iX.

“When the future is zero emissions, we believe that having two answers is better than one,” he added.


Still, Cobb of Fitch Solutions said it would be years before any European political support for hydrogen cars translated into significant sales.

Indeed, the automotive consultancy LMC predicts that various uses of hydrogen – in commercial vehicles, aviation and energy storage – would stimulate its adoption in passenger cars, but in the longer term.

“We’re just not going to get there anytime soon,” said Sam Adham, senior LMC powertrain analyst. LMC estimates that by 2030, hydrogen fuel cell models will only account for 0.1% of sales in Europe, and sales will not take off until after 2035.

There remain divisions over the prospects for technology in the global automotive industry, and even within automotive groups.

VW’s Audi unit may be researching fuel cells, for example, but Volkswagen Group CEO Herbert Diess has criticized hydrogen cars.

“The hydrogen car has proven to be NOT the solution to climate change,” he said in a tweet this year. “False debates are a waste of time.”

Stephan Herbst, general manager of Toyota in Europe, has a different point of view.

Speaking as a member of the Hydrogen Council group of companies, which predicts that hydrogen will power more than 400 million cars by 2050, Herbst said he believes governments have now set ambitious targets. of reduction in carbon emissions, they would push hydrogen alongside the battery. electric car.

“We firmly believe that it is not a question of one or the other,” he added. “We need both technologies.” (Reporting by Nick Carey; Additional reporting by Christina Amann in Berlin and Christoph Steitz in Frankfurt; Editing by Joseph White and Pravin Char)

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