5 November 2015

Futuristic hydrogen cars – once a dream, now reality

You’d be forgiven for thinking that electric cars will become the norm’ in the near future, as manufacturers, scientists and governments try to peel civilisation away from relying on smelly diesel and petrol vehicles. One of the few snags with the amazing, all-electric Tesla Model S I drove for a week earlier this year is that to boost its battery range back up to 100% after scurrying to one of the company’s supercharger stations, of which there are currently very few ‘up north’, it takes 75-90 minutes. Sure, recharging is free, costing owners zilch, but is a pain in the backside, impractical if one’s in a hurry, and usually means one ends up downing a few skinny lattes while hanging around.

Lab’ boffins the world over have been frantically seeking to put their fingers on the holy grail of green motoring and although electric cars like the Tesla are stunningly brilliant in many ways, other technologies are constantly being developed at the same time, including hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, or FCV for short. They’re not a new thing, having first been dreamed up and tinkered with in the 1960s when Hugh Grant and Halle Berry were born, but it’s taken until now for them to become a touchable reality – even if prices are enough to make grown men wince.

Toyota Mirai

With a name that actually means ‘future’ in Japanese, Toyota’s Mirai has now reached UK shores after having been sold in Japan since December 2014. The electricity that powers the 152bhp electric motor is generated in what’s called a ‘fuel stack’, by the chemical reaction between hydrogen gas, which is stored in lightweight carbon fibre tanks under the front and rear seats, and oxygen, which is sucked in through large air intakes in the car’s grille. Costing private punters around £66,000, or available to lease at £750 per month, this car is one of the most advanced in the world, and as it’s a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, all it emits out of the back is water vapour. Typically for Toyota, Mirai’s styling is a bit quirky on the outside and indeed inside, but with a range of 400 miles or slightly more, a super relaxing drive thanks to the silence of electric power, and requiring only around 5 minutes to completely refuel, it’s not to be sniffed at. Between only 12 and 15 Mirai have been brought to the UK this year, but 18 more are expected in 2016 and once they start becoming more popular, the price should come down too.

2016 Toyota Mirai FCV hydrogen fuel cell vehicle


Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell

Korea is racing to wow the world with hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, too, and for £53,000, UK customers can now buy one of the few ix35 Fuel Cells SUVs available. Taller and generally larger than the Mirai, the ix35 Fuel Cell produces a relatively damp 134bhp and works in conjunction with a comparatively bulky 24kWh battery, compared to the 1.5kWh battery in the Toyota Mirai. The Telegraph drove one recently and noted that power sharply falls away once the ix35 Fuel Cell reaches 60mph, and its range of around 370 miles quickly reduces if cruising at 70mph on a motorway. Still, it’s another remarkable step forward for the car industry and for the environment, only taking 3 minutes to fully top up, and Hyundai sees hydrogen as the key to a sustainable future for our grandchildren and beyond.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell FCV SUV


Honda FCV Clarity

Available to lease by Japanese motorists in 2016, Honda is proud of its tireless development in the hydrogen fuel cell field, having increased the capacity of the Clarity’s fuel tanks and reduced the size of the car’s fuel stack, resulting in a greater range and more space for passengers. Not cheap, just like the previous two FCVs described, Honda’s effort is expected to cost the Japanese Yen equivalent of around £42,000, or be leased at around £875 a month. Power is pretty much identical to the ix35 at 134bhp and, as with all FCVs, the only noise one can expect is a little tyre or wind noise, but manufacturers are even fitting clever devices to near eradicate these. A UK release date hasn’t been hinted at yet but we can expect it to reach our shores in what seems like no time.

Honda FCV Clarity fuel cell car


Other worthy FCV mentions

Development being expensive, manufacturers have got into the habit of sharing FCV development technologies and costs, this cute and cuddly arrangement resulting in plenty of partnerships, including BMW using Toyota’s latest fuel stack advances in their 5 Series GT Fuel Cell concept.

Lexus LF-FC fuel cell hydrogen concept


Lexus, the posh division of Toyota, has taken the covers off its LF-FC concept at the Tokyo Motor Show 2015. A sporty luxury saloon, it uses three electric motors, one powering the back wheels, whilst both front wheels have an electric motor each. Arranging the two hydrogen fuel tanks in a ‘T’ shape and positioning the fuel stack at the back mean the LF-FC’s weight distribution is optimised for handling. This powerful, plush, futuristic car will be crammed full of autonomous functions and may or may not make production as a full FCV, Lexus having carved out a name in hybrids until now, so watch this space.

Is hydrogen really the answer?

The German city of Hamburg already runs its buses on hydrogen and has four hydrogen fuel stations in the vicinity, whereas the UK only currently has three, which are all located down south. Thankfully, the UK Government announced earlier this week that the Plug-in Car Grant, which previously only covered certain hybrid and fully electric cars, will now provide owners of hydrogen cars such as Toyota’s Mirai, with £5,000 as a cashback.

FCV fuel stacks need to be kept cool, which is a key role that oxygen plays, partly to prevent the water boiling. Despite hydrogen only needing a tenth of the energy that petrol does in order to combust, concerns over FCVs exploding can be put to one side, as fuel tank punctures would result in hydrogen simply escaping into the atmosphere, as it’s much lighter than air.  The fuel tanks have been tested over and over again with military strength, and hydrogen can’t explode on its own.

The increasingly large batteries in electric cars aren’t environmentally friendly to produce and have limited lives, plus they take quite a while to charge. On the other hand, hydrogen fuel tanks should last forever and the fuel stacks will probably be capable of powering FCVs into six-figure mileages.

Hydrogen is produced using either fossil fuels, like burning coal, or renewables including wind, solar and tidal power, so by using more of the greener, latter sources, the future certainly looks brighter for FCVs than it does for battery-electric cars. It’s just a shame that neither will have personalities any more, unlike V8s and 3-cylinders petrol engines of old, for example; but after all, we’re heading towards driverless motoring faster than many of us would like.

If you have any thoughts or questions on hydrogen fuel cell vehicle technology, you can try picking our brains on Twitter or Facebook and we’ll be happy to try and answer them the best we can.

Oliver Hammond

Written by Oliver Hammond

Oliver is an established freelance motoring writer, published journalist and automotive copywriter based in Manchester. He regularly reviews cars and covers events and launches as editor of petroleumvitae.com and his articles appear in various magazines each month. No relation to Richard from Top Gear, he’s got a weakness for luxo-barges, proper 4x4s and oddball cars.