bodyshop’s Chris Mann gets behind the wheel of Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel-cell powered Mirai

02.04.20 Liveryman Chris Mann

Future fuel? It’s elementary


According to Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the meaning of life, the universe and everything was 42, writes Liveryman Chris Mann on behalf of Bodyshop magazine. However, as I discovered at a conference for Guild of Motoring Writers members hosted by Toyota at the RAC’s Woodcote Park Country Club, the number is not 42 but 1, the atomic number of hydrogen.

Bodyshop’s Chris Mann gets behind the wheel of Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel-cell powered Mirai

Bodyshop’s Chris Mann gets behind the wheel of Toyota’s new hydrogen fuel-cell powered Mirai

But first, a little history. At the dawn of the age of motoring, in the late 1800s the internal combustion engine (ICE) was but one of a variety of alternative motive powers being developed for the burgeoning ‘horseless carriage’ market, with steam and electricity both then being serious rivals to the fossil fuel option. In fact, the first ever officially recognised world land speed record was established in 1898 by an electric car, a Jeantaud driven by Frenchman Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Loubat at 39.24mph. Over the next few years the land speed record was fought out between Chasseloup-Loubat and his Belgian rival, Camille Jenatzy who, in 1899, became the first man to break the 60mph barrier in his torpedo-shaped car, Jamais Contente.

In 1899, Belgian race car driver Camille Jenatzy became the first man to break the 60mph land speed barrier in his torpedo-shaped, electric-powered La Jamais Contente

In 1899, Belgian race car driver Camille Jenatzy became the first man to break the 60mph land speed barrier in his torpedo-shaped, electric-powered La Jamais Contente

The LSR monopoly of electric vehicles was not broken until 1902 when the record was raised to 75.06 mph by another Frenchman, Leon Serpollet, in a steam-powered Gardner Serpollet while, in 1906, the American Fred Marriott drove his steam-powered Stanley Rocket on Daytona Beach at a dizzying 127.66mph, a record for steam-powered vehicles that was not broken for more than a century.
The use of the internal combustion engine was, therefore, far from obvious at the dawn of the 20th century but practicality proved critical to the needs of everyday motoring. As a result, the inherent problems of both electricity (battery weight and charge-time) and steam (lead-time to build up boiler pressure) soon resulted in the century-long hegemony of the internal combustion engine powered car.

Environmental pressure

Climate change, shrinking fossil-fuel resources, and the resulting environmental and social pressures have now resulted in a resurgence of interest in alternative, less environmentally damaging, automotive fuels. In the 1990s, lightweight battery powered ‘city cars’ became a virtue signalling trend for wealthy early-adopters but their cost, limited range, lack of passenger space, non-existent load-carrying capacity and ‘plastic-pig’ appearance proved too hard a sell to the general motoring public, whilst the major manufacturers felt that, with the then current (no pun intended) level of battery technology, battery-electric vehicles were not a practical proposition. Under government pressure to address the issue of carbon emissions from conventional ICE powered vehicles, however, vehicle manufacturers started to develop hybrid vehicles. These combined conventional internal combustion engines with auxiliary electric motors, with Toyota launching the first mass-produced hybrid vehicle in Japan, the Prius, in 1997. This was followed, in 1999, by the Honda Insight but whilst significantly reducing carbon emissions ‘at the point of usage’ hybrids have proved to be expensive to produce and do not provide the zero-emissions motoring solutions beloved of governments and environmentalists.

Game changer?

The game-changer, though, came in 2003 with the establishment of Tesla Motors by American entrepreneurs Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning. PayPal mogul Elon Musk provided significant funding to the venture, becoming chairman in 2004 and the company launched its first model in 2008, the battery-electric high-performance Tesla Roadster.

With a top speed of 125mph, supercar levels of acceleration and a claimed range of nearly 250 miles, Tesla’s Roadster caught the imagination of environmentalists and petrolheads alike. I can personally vouch for the Roadster’s mind-warping acceleration having driven the car at Millbrook proving ground soon after its launch.

A retail price well north of £100,000 in the UK (even after generous government subsidies) meant that Tesla’s Roadster was never going to go mainstream but what it did do was to highlight that the technology was there to produce battery electric vehicles aimed at the mass-market and “embarrassed the major vehicle manufacturers into doing something”.

The future, a problem for every solution?

The past 20 years has seen significant developments in battery technology and now that Tesla’s Model 3 range is finally available, from a smidgen under £40k in the UK, is the battery-electric car finally ready to supplant conventional ICE powered vehicles?

Almost certainly not, according to the experts speaking at Woodcote Park. Their belief is that the future lies in the hydrogen fuel cell, with battery-electric, hybrid and plug-in hybrid alternatives merely staging posts to a practicable hydrogen powered future.

Pictured from left: Dr Paul Neiwenhuis, joins Riversimple founder and chief engineer Hugo Spowers and Jon Hunt, Toyota GB’s manager-alternative fuels at the RAC’s Woodcote Park Country Club

Pictured from left: Dr Paul Neiwenhuis, joins Riversimple founder and chief engineer Hugo Spowers and Jon Hunt, Toyota GB’s manager-alternative fuels at the RAC’s Woodcote Park Country Club

According to Toyota GB’s Manager, Alternative Fuels, Jon Hunt there are significant fundamental issues with battery electric vehicles (BEVs). these include battery life and material resources, Hunt commenting that for the UK alone to meet its 2050 zero carbon targets global cobalt production would have to double, we would consume 75% of current global lithium production and 50% of the world’s copper production. This is clearly a non-starter, not to mention the environmental issue of end-of-life battery recycling. Add to these the problems of vehicle range, charge times, infrastructure and, possibly the most significant, customer convenience and the environmentalist’s dream of an all-electric future starts to look somewhat shaky.

Riversimple’s Hugo Spowers (described, slightly worryingly, by conference moderator and leading automotive sustainability expert Dr Paul Niewenhuis as “Britain’s answer to Elon Musk”) highlighted the infrastructure issue pointing out that an all-BEV future would require stratospheric and, for all practical purposes, totally non-viable, infrastructure investment. A BEV, he said, takes about six times as long to refuel as a conventional ICE powered vehicle, even with the fast charging points currently being installed at motorway services. The 20 ‘conventional’ fuel pumps typical of most motorway services would therefore need replacing with 120 fast charging points. The electricity consumption created by these would require an electrical sub-station capable of generating 14.4 megawatts, equivalent to the power consumed by 32,000 homes.

So, if not BEVs then what? Toyota has probably devoted more resources, both financial and manpower to the long-term environmental sustainability of the motor vehicle and, in Jon Hunt’s view, the result of all its research is pointing inexorably towards the hydrogen fuel cell. According to Hunt, the energy input required for battery production is enormous. Hydrogen offers energy independence and, with hydrogen making up 75% of the matter in the universe it’s not going to run out any time soon. Hydrogen, he said, “can be produced locally, it’s easy and cheap to distribute and easy to store,” as well as being safe and zero-carbon, producing only water as its waste product.

“Battery charging is easy if you have one vehicle,” added Spowers. “the problem lies in scaling it up. Conversely, with hydrogen fuel cells, the cost of refuelling one car is enormous but scaling up is highly cost effective.”

Both Toyota and Riversimple are currently marketing hydrogen fuel-cell powered electric vehicles. Toyota’s new Mirai is, says the company, the world’s first dedicated mass-produced hydrogen fuel cell vehicle. Retailing at £62,500 it is far from cheap but has a cruising range of up to 300 miles and a top speed of 111mph.

The Riversimple proposition, very different to Toyota’s Mirai, comprises a lightweight vehicle, the Rasa, primarily designed for urban use. Riversimple plans never to sell a car, instead providing the user with a “mobility solution” comprising four main elements: the car, the insurance, service and maintenance and all fuel, the costs covered by the user’s monthly lease payment.

In my view, the future is definitely hydrogen powered, whether this will be the very different propositions represented by the Mirai or the Riversimple Rasa remains to be seen.

Source: www.bodyshopmag.com