He is China’s “father of the electric vehicle movement,” the man credited with putting more than two million electric vehicles on the road in the world’s most populous country. He is vice-chairman of China’s national advisory body for policy making, a role, says Bloomberg, “that ranks higher than a minister and gives him a voice in the nation’s future planning.” He single-handedly, if one believes all the accolades lauded on this German-trained engineer, launched his country’s EV subsidy program, bent automakers local and foreign to his vision of reducing emissions, and perhaps more importantly in the eyes of the mandarins he had to lobby 20 years ago, convinced the Chinese government that the then-untested electric car was the technology that would liberate China from its dependence on imported oil. He is, quite simply, the reason China is home to one of every two electric vehicles sold today.
And now he thinks the future is hydrogen.
Now, let’s be clear. Wan Gang, the former Audi executive who went on to become China’s science and technology minister, does not think that fuel cell vehicles will supplant battery-powered EVs. Rather, they will happily coexist, the organizer of the 2019 World New Energy Vehicle Congress telling Bloombergthat “electric and fuel cell cars are both important … In cities, people prefer to drive electric cars, while inter-city, people prefer fuel-cell cars.” And, as Energy in Demand says, “when China’s father of EVs starts talking up hydrogen vehicles, analysts say investors should pay attention.”
When China’s father of EVs starts talking up hydrogen vehicles, analysts say investors should pay attention.
Wan is not alone in rejecting Musk’s battery-or-bust low-emissions future. As an example, according to a KPMG study, 78 per cent of senior automotive executives think “FCEVs will be the breakthrough for electric mobility.” Interestingly — I say interesting since the automakers these senior executives work for are falling all over themselves trying to bring BEVs to market as quickly as possible — 62 per cent of these same execs polled think “BEVs will fail due to infrastructure challenges.” Their reasoning is simple, according to KPMG: FCEVs will solve the recharging and infrastructure issue BEVs face today, “making recharging times of 25 to 45 minutes for BEVs seem unreasonable.”
Of course, there are obstacles to Wan’s proposed hydrogen future, foremost being the sheer cost of adopting hydrogen as an alternative fuel. Currently, FCEV technology — the cars, the infrastructure, and the fuel — are all horribly expensive. Like BEVs in their infancy, FCEVs are so expensive that automakers must subvent their leasing to make them even remotely affordable. And, while the “supercharger” stations required to recharge EVs are not cheap, their implementation can be rolled out gradually, outlets able to incrementally install units that cost anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 as the market demands. A hydrogen refuelling station, on the other hand, currently requires a commitment of millions of dollars just to get off the ground.
That huge upfront investment currently makes refuelling a fuel cell vehicle — Toyota’s Mirai, the Hyundai Nexo and others — comparatively expensive. In the U.S. — California mainly, since it is the U.S. hub of FCEV deployment — the price of hydrogen is around US$15 a kilogram (H2, being a compressed gas, has to be sold by weight rather than volume). That’s equivalent to about a six-buck gallon of gasoline. In other words, an FCEV will cost about US$80 to go 500 kilometres compared with a conventional car that needs about half as many greenbacks worth of gasoline. However, that may soon change; Shane Stephens, principal and chief development officer at FirstElement Fuel — which runs 19 of California’s 39 hydrogen refuelling stations — tells CNBC that his company’s near-term target is $10/kg, roughly the equivalent of a US$4 gallon of gas.
Whatever the future holds for fuel cell vehicles, the catalyst for widespread adoption of hydrogen as a transportation fuel will be long-haul trucks. While battery-powered semis — Tesla being the main protagonist — may prove effective for short-range haulage, lithium-ion is simply impractical for long-haul trucking. Not only will effective payloads be reduced — by as much as seven tons per trailer — the recharging times are simply business-busting. A truck with a one megawatt-hour battery will need two hours plugged into a 450-kilowatt charger — a technology not yet rolled out, and when it is, likely the biggest chargers we’ll ever have access to — for a full dose of electrons. A two megawatt-hour battery will require a whopping four hours.
Mr. Musk’s influence, for good or bad, remains a huge roadblock for a hydrogen-fuelled transportation infrastructure. Thankfully, Musk seems alone in his intransigence.
Compare that with the 10 to 15 minutes currently required to refuel a diesel rig and the 20 minutes estimated to re-gas a Nikola semi, and the reason for the trucking industry’s scepticism surrounding batteries becomes obvious. I suppose Tesla could segment its truck’s batteries and offer multiple ports so that as many as eight, as some pundits have suggested, Superchargers could be plugged in simultaneously. But that doesn’t seem practical, does it?
This brings us to the other roadblock to widespread adoption of FCEVs: Mr. Musk himself. The Tesla CEO has famously labelled hydrogen-powered vehicles “fool’s cells,” saying that their success “is simply not possible.” And while the thought that one man could shut down an entire industry sounds implausible, it’s impossible to underestimate the influence Tesla has had on the electric car industry. Tesla, in the minds of many consumers, is the electric vehicle industry, even KPMG acknowledging that “the publicity generated by Tesla Motors is certainly [one of the] reasons why pure battery electric vehicles have entered consumers’ mindsets.” Mr. Musk’s influence, for good or bad, remains a huge roadblock for a hydrogen-fuelled transportation infrastructure. Thankfully, Musk seems alone in his intransigence. Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada — a strong proponent of FCEVs — told Reuters at the 2017 Tokyo auto show that “we don’t really see an adversary ‘zero-sum’ relationship between the EV and the hydrogen car.”
The future of the automobile is no doubt electrified, and there will be plenty of space in the two billion cars predicted to be on the road by 2040 for both battery- and fuel cell-powered EVs. Wan predicts there will be one million FCEVs on Chinese roads by 2030, inner city commuters probably still preferring the plug-at-home convenience of an EV while those who prowl inter-city highways gravitating to the quicker refuelling of hydrogen. And when the “father of the electric car movement” speaks, even sceptics — are you listening, Elon? — need to pay attention.