By Peter M. DeLorenzo
Detroit. All of a sudden, hydrogen is back. Hydrogen fuel cell development to power EVs, especially when it comes to heavy trucks, has been ongoing at the manufacturers for decades now. And in a new front, Toyota is stepping up its efforts in leading the charge to adapt zero emission hydrogen fuel to internal combustion engines, joined by Borg Warner – a U.S. turbocharging specialist – and Riken Corp., a Japanese piston ring-focused company. I view this is to be a significant development, because Toyota’s at times visionary leader, Akio Toyoda, has become a forceful advocate of the development of hydrogen fuel, as he believes the EV infrastructure around the world is woefully lacking – it is – and that the life of internal combustion engines is far from over. I concur.
What does it all mean? Make no mistake, the rush to EVs is well and truly underway, and by 2035, the percentage of EVs in our nation’s fleet of vehicles could be as much as 50 percent. Not 100 percent? No. But 50 percent is a huge number of vehicles, although the EV infrastructure will still be catching up.
What about California’s mandate to ban the sale of ICE vehicles in the state by 2035? It’s a noble goal, depending on one’s perspective, but is it achievable? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but again, no. It is not only woefully unrealistic, it threatens to unleash economic calamity on those who can least afford it. It is fine to set a goal – after all, that’s exactly what John Kennedy did when he promised that the U.S. would put a man on the moon – but to expect the automotive infrastructure to be completely transformed in just twelve years, requiring a comprehensive makeover that is almost incomprehensible in scope, is, as I said, woefully unrealistic. I figure that around 2030, when it becomes apparent that the “Grand Transition” to an EV infrastructure is not only ongoing but lagging, watch for that date to be pushed back to 2040.
What does all of this have to do with hydrogen? Akio Toyoda’s push to develop hydrogen as a fuel for ICE vehicles is truly significant, because it takes the onus off of developing hydrogen fuel cell-powered BEVs. Do you think the challenges of developing an EV infrastructure are difficult? You can multiply that difficulty exponentially when talking about developing hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicles and the infrastructure to go along with them.
In case you’re wondering, I am not new to the hydrogen “thing.” I have had serious interest in the idea of hydrogen as a fuel since the early 90s. My interest gradually increased to the point that I first proposed the Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation back in January 2007 to automotive and motorsports executives. We had serious interest from GM and Toyota, and the racing world took note of the concept.
Simply stated, the premise of HERF was to rewrite the rules for the Future of Racing, but in doing so, the idea was to also offer new ideas for our transportation needs as a nation. HERF revolved around the fact that hydrogen electric fuel cell power presented the most compelling solution for our future propulsion needs, one that goes beyond the current battery range debate. If you’ve been reading about the auto industry’s coming transformation to electrification and the mass production of Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs), hydrogen fuel cell power still has the potential to be better than BEVs, by every measure. But back in 2007, the idea of hydrogen electric fuel cell power was a concept that was 20 years down the road. In fact, it always seemed to remain 20 years down the road. The HERF concept set out to change all of that.One thing that has been proven time and time again over the decades is that technical advancements developed in racing end up improving our production cars in terms of aero and mechanical efficiency, suspension, braking and tire development and, of course, power. And the reason that the mass adaptation of hydrogen electric fuel cell vehicles always seemed to be stuck in neutral (except for recent low-production efforts by Honda and other manufacturers) is that the challenges associated with hydrogen electric fuel cell power had never been addressed with the kind of urgency that is associated with the white-hot competitiveness found in racing. Those challenges were dealing with the heat generated, the secure storage of the on-board hydrogen, the time it takes for refueling, and of course, range. The HERF idea would address those challenges and then some, because racing would radically accelerate those learnings. I also find it amusing that manufacturers are embracing various artificial electronic sound enhancements for their BEVs right now (the noise generated by BEVs is – ahem – lacking to say the least), because the HERF rules package required the participating manufacturers to create their own sound signatures, which would be a combination of audio projection and the noise generated by air flowing over the bodywork.The HERF concept was strongly embraced by GM and to a lesser extent by Toyota, with other manufacturers waiting in the wings to see who would participate. Bob Lutz introduced me at the meeting and suggested that GM welcomed the competition from the other manufacturers, but in the end it was a case of one manufacturer waiting for the other manufacturers to jump in. Instead, everyone got a lethal case of frigid feet, and HERF was killed in the ice storm.I still strongly believe in the HERF concept, I also believe that hydrogen as a fuel for ICE vehicles could be the brilliant stroke. As we like to say around here, it’s all a giant “we’ll see.”
And that’s the High-Octane Truth for this week.
Editor’s Note: For more info on Peter’s Hydrogen Electric Racing Federation, check out the HERF entry on Wikipedia here. -WG
Editor’s Note: You can access previous issues of AE by clicking on “Next 1 Entries” below. – WG