It wouldn’t be fair if GM was the only one of the Detroit 3 to get its own feature. Much like GM, Ford, faced with its highly possible doom, has also smartened-up. The company recently hired the veteran and tested bigshot of Boeing, Alan Mullally, to bring it back into shape. Mulally has been credited with stabilizing Ford’s financial position so that it does not face the threat of bankruptcy, unlike its other Detroit brethren.
Much like GM (although not to the same extent), Ford has transformed several of its poor product offerings into tier-one offerings. The new Ford Flex, Fusion/Milan and the upcoming Taurus come to mind. Just recently the company took the crown for the most fuel-efficient mid-size sedan, giving a slap to Toyota in the process. The biggest ace that Ford has is its European operations. Its expertise on that continent have earned it great praise and now the company is in the process of applying some of the expertise to its North American market. Only good things could come out of this.
With a new leader and with promising products (both current and upcoming) under its belt, Ford is on track to become something it hasn’t been for almost two decades: a highly competitive and respectable company. If the company is able to keep this momentum going, then we are witnessing its own Renaissance.
Fuel Cell Electric Cars Are Not The Future, But Maybe Later
The word on the street a decade or two ago was that fuel-cell electric vehicles were the future; fast forward to today, and Toyota, which bet big on hydrogen-powered cars, is looking increasingly isolated as rival automakers double down on battery electric vehicles.
There has been much talk about the death of the internal combustion engine (ICE) ever since Tesla Motors made the electric car cool, talk that in many ways echoes the rhetoric that prevailed when the first commercially-available hybrid vehicles hit the scene, talk that has been fueled by the reluctant but gradual shift of the automotive industry towards pure electrification. However, whereas hybrids still rely on the ICE for motivation, the extent of today’s electrification renders the age-old technology irrelevant. If electric cars do end up ruling our roads, death of the ICE is surely inevitable.
The first fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) arrive just when the fledgling battery electric car segment is gaining traction, presenting the world’s automakers with two potentially viable “zero-emissions” vehicle options. Hybrid tech bridged the gab between the gas engine and the two methods of pure electrification, and now it’s time for the industry to decide on which one to bet its billions on.
Going Against The Tide
It’s Deja vu all over again. During a time when most automakers counted on gas-powered cars to remain the one-and-only means of transportation, Honda and Toyota saw it fit to shake things up, each releasing a hybrid car that critics often mocked as vapourware. Honda’s hybrid, the Insight, proved them correct, but the Toyota Prius would go on to single-handily start a revolution, dominating the newly-established segment and fending off all new competitors without issue.
Today, “Prius” is synonymous with hybrids, and that is likely what Toyota is hoping to achieve with the Mirai fuel cell vehicle, which may be part of a broader company initiative to develop a fuel cell ecosystem in an industry increasingly entrenching itself in the battery electric camp. Honda is gunning for the same with its Clarity FCEV, as is Korea’s Hyundai with a number of products. However, most other automakers have ruled out the technology while a few like General Motors and Ford are dabbling.
Similar Results, Different Processes
Battery electric vehicles (BEV) are powered by one or more electric motors that source their energy from electricity stored in a battery pack, which are recharged using grid electricity either from a wall socket or a dedicated charging unit. Since they don’t run on gasoline or diesel and are powered by electricity, the popular belief is that they emit zero pollutants.
Owners must consider the hefty cost of potentially replacing the batteries of such vehicles, be it as a result of battery degradation or damage. Costs could be as much as US$6,000 for a mid-rage BEV like the Nissan Leaf and over US$15,000 for a long-range BEV like the Chevrolet Bolt.
Fuel cell vehicles, on the other hand, use hydrogen gas to power their electric motor(s), combining hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity and emitting nothing more than water and heat. Since they are powered entirely by electricity, fuel cell vehicles are considered electric vehicles; however, unlike battery-powered EVs, their range and refueling processes are similar to conventional cars.
BEVs and especially FCEVs command a hefty price premium over gasoline- and diesel-diesel-powered car because of their very low penetration and the rarity and higher cost of their constituent materials, such as cobalt and platinum. The Toyota Mirai, for instance, has a starting price of approximately $58,000 in America before government incentives, while the most affordable long-range BEVs sticker at around US$35,000.
Electric cars offer a limited driving range, so there is also the issue of range anxiety. Not everyone can recharge at home and charging stations remain sparse, issues that are notably more pronounced when talking FCEVs.
Fortunately, the overall costs of both types of EVs are expected to decline as their market penetration increases.
Not So Green
While both BEVs and FCEVs produce little to no tailpipe pollution, the process that goes into getting one ready for consumption and up and going unfortunately does. With the former, if t local grid generates electricity from coal-fired power plants, then your car could potentially have large a carbon footprint. If, however, the grid incorporates a fair amount of renewable solar and wind energy, expect a clean electric vehicle.
We must also factor in other forms of environmental impact, such as the hidden emissions created by extracting (digging, mining, baking etc.) the precious rare metals used by batteries. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that it takes nearly twice as much energy to create a battery electric vehicle as it does a gas-powered one on a per-kilometre basis, resulting in more harmful pollutants. However, the same study found that, even after taking into account emissions from battery manufacturing, the average BEV generates half the emissions of a conventional car over the course of its life.
Disposing of half a tonne of batteries once they are no longer usable also poses a problem. They are not dumped in landfills as you might have thought. Most are recycled in an attempt to salvage and reuse their precious metals and other components. This results in added energy, time and money.
Similarly, producing, packaging and transferring the hydrogen used by fuel cells requires a large amount of energy that can result in greenhouse gas emissions and various other pollutants. According to U.S. Department of Energy, about 95% of industrial hydrogen is produced from natural gas, a fossil fuel—as with batteries, the goal is to shift that reliance to renewable energy sources like solar, wind and water.
Only One: Batteries Or Fuel Cells
Developing a car—any car—is very expensive, making it impractical to develop and sell on a comparable scale cutting-edge technologies like BEV and FCEVs at the same time. “One at a time” has been the mindset of most automakers—with Toyota, Honda and Hyundai (the biggest proponent of FCEV) all doubling back to battery electric powertrains in recent years, it is fairly clear where the overall industry is heading.
“The worst thing you can do is kind of half bake electric, then go off on another science project with fuel cells, then go running to another science project,” Scott Keogh, president of Audi of America, told Automotive News when inquired about the Volkswagen Group’s full commitment to BEVs.
The biggest argument against fuel cells is that they are not as energy-efficient as lithium-ion and other modern battery technologies, with some studies estimating a factor of 3-to-1 in favor of batteries. A well-to-wheel analysis looking at the environmental impact of a BEVs and FCEVs throughout their lifespan, one carried out by an international team of scientists headed by Swiss research institute Empa, found that FCEVs are ecologically sound only if they are able to run on hydrogen from renewable energy sources and, in their current state, don’t fare well in the eco-comparison with electric cars.
“First of all, electricity is needed to generate hydrogen, which the car tanks up on. Electricity is then produced from hydrogen again in the car. This double conversion significantly reduces the efficiency level,” the researchers noted. “People who use the same electricity to charge the battery in their electric cars directly travel more economically and thus in a more environmentally friendly way.”
When comparing the efficiency of modern BEVs and FCEV from the point of fueling (tank-to-wheels efficiency), the former does indeed come out on top. The Environmental Protection Agency’s miles-per-gallon-equivalent (MPGe) estimates—that is, the energy obtained by combustion of one US gallon of gasoline—reveals that the Toyota Mirai’s fuel efficiency of 67 MPGe pales in comparison to the Tesla Model S BEVs’ rating of up to 100 MPGe.
In an earlier study, fuel cell expert Ulf Bossel described a hydrogen economy as a wasteful economy, arguing that the large amount of energy required to get the hydrogen ready for use, in addition to the energy lost when it is converted to useful electricity, leaves around 25% (compared to 77% for batteries) for practical use, which is unacceptable to run an economy sustainably.
Bossel also pointed out the possible geopolitical ramifications of a hydrogen economy, an important piece of the equation that doesn’t get enough attention. “The advantages of hydrogen praised by journalists (non-toxic, burns to water, abundance of hydrogen in the Universe, etc.) are misleading, because the production of hydrogen depends on the availability of energy and water, both of which are increasingly rare and may become political issues, as much as oil and natural gas are today,” he said in an interview with PhyOrg.
Another study published in the journal Energy by scientists at Stanford University and the Technical University of Munich (TUM), this time comparing BEVs and FCEVs in a hypothetical future where the cost of electric vehicles is more affordable, arrived at the same general conclusion as Bossel and Empa’s researchers.
“We looked at how large-scale adoption of electric vehicles would affect total energy use in a community, for buildings as well as transportation,” said lead author Markus Felgenhauer, a doctoral candidate at TUM and former visiting scholar at the Stanford Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP). “We found that investing in all-electric battery vehicles is a more economical choice for reducing carbon dioxide emissions, primarily due to their lower cost and significantly higher energy efficiency.”
Not Now; Maybe Later
Whether or not hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles are the future and a better value proposition than battery electric vehicles will be a topic of contention for years to come, but for the time being at least, it appears that the most important players in the emerging post-fossil fuel era have voted with their money. The world’s automakers, including ardent supporters of fuel cell technology like Toyota and Honda, are betting on batteries, having investing billions to electrify their entire lineups over the next 20 years.
FCEVs make up a mere fraction of electric sales, and the only real advantage that they currently have over their battery-powered counterparts is refueling speed. However, that’s not to say there is no future for fuel cells or that Toyota, Honda or other interested parties intend on giving up on the technology. There has already been significant investment in the area, a foundation has been set and innovations have been made. Add to that the strong subsidies and marketplace incentives provided by governments in Japan, Korea, and parts of North America (i.e. California), and fuel-cells could still have fighting chance, with a potential to start a second wave of the EV revolution once renewable energy sources become readily available.
“We don’t really see an adversary ‘zero-sum’ relationship between the EV (electric vehicle) and the hydrogen car,” Toyota chairman Takeshi Uchiyamada told ReutersGF during the lead up to the 2017 Tokyo Auto Show. “We’re not about to give up on hydrogen electric fuel-cell technology at all.”
Unlikely as it might seem, a steadfast Toyota just might repeat history, positioned at the epicentre of a fuel-cell revolution that most dismissed—a repeat of the Prius era in many ways.
Electric Car Owners Deserve A Simple Charging Solution
Electric vehicles are poised to change not only the automotive world, but also our social, political and economic landscape, but not before there is an established network of easy-to-use, no hassle charging stations for them.
In 2011, there were seven electrified vehicles available. Today, there are more than 30, with most major car companies offering something.
As a matter of fact, there are over 600,000 electrified vehicles on the road in the U.S. and Canada alone, a figure that although impressive by itself, is a mere fraction of the nearly 20 million vehicles that were sold in the region during 2016.
There is room to grow, and as more and more EVs are sold, the question of charging becomes ever more critical. Unfortunately, the widespread adoption of electric cars continues to be held back by the lack of a strong charging infrastructure.
Despite some studies downplaying the phenomenon, range anxiety — that is, the fear that an EV won’t have enough stored power to handle daily driving, especially long trips — remains an issue for many prospective car buyers unfamiliar with electric cars. In addition to charging at home, drivers will want to charge on the road — quickly and conveniently.
Governments around the world continue to provide incentives to expedite the growth for the segment, but progress has been slow. But despite the slow progress, there has been an increase in the number of charging stations around the world, and together with the longer driving range provided by modern EVs, range anxiety is will eventually be a thing of the past.
The growth of the EV charging infrastructure will be an exciting stage in the evolution of the electric car. And with one study conducted by Ernst and Young identifying 143 companies globally with a claim to the emerging EV charging infrastructure, you can be here is no looking back.
So, as an owner of an electric vehicle, where can you charge? Sure, everybody and their grandmother knows about Tesla and its proprietary network of stations, but there are quite a few lesser known companies doing the good job.
Up in Canada, for instance, those looking for a convenient charging station will become familiar with flo, which provides the country’s largest network of charging stations. In addition to its public network, the company also provides sturdy charging stations for the home and workplace.
Tesla and flo are just two of a growing number of players entering field, most fielding their own proprietary systems. But for the EV segment to truly take off, there needs to be one standard across the board so that drivers don’t get locked into one network, making it difficult or costly for them to charge at other locations.
In many ways, the existence of different standards limits the growth of the EV segment just as much as the lack of charging stations. Automakers need to be accepting of an open standard that allows EV owners to mix and match various EV charging stations with any back end (plug) they choose.
If not an open standard, then at least a universal charging system for all EV owners of the world.
Needless to say, the EV segment will continue to be stuck in the muck, progressing slowly, until the world’s tech companies join forces to make the lives of current and prospective EV owners easier. The much-needed strong and expansive charging infrastructure needs to be accompanied with a universal or open charging standard.
Let’s make it happen.
The American Dream is the Fantasy of a Fast Car
“Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.”
This is the advice of Hunter S. Thompson, bard of Las Vegas, pioneer of gonzo journalism, consumer of chemicals, and writer of the classic 1972 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He is the beating heart of Sin City, or, more aptly, the adrenaline-fueled spasms of the misshapen lump pumping enough blood through the body of Vegas for it to survive yet another day.
What does all this have to do with cars? Everything. Cars, to Thompson, to Vegas, are the answer. They are an American Dream. Your English teacher lied to you. The American dream is not a complex thesis on the tragedy of tortured American souls distracting themselves from their true pain by drowning in sex and drugs. It’s not about working hard and slowly rising from rags to riches through the rewarded virtue of honest labor. Instead, the American dream is the rush of brief fulfillment found when realizing a fantasy.
Thompson drives to Vegas on a mission to find the American dream. The boys in the Hangover drive to Vegas to taste that dream. Even staid Brits fantasize of driving to Vegas to see what this dream business is about. They all find, like the cliche, that it’s not the destination but the journey. They also find that the journey needs the right kind of car.
Driving to Vegas needs a convertible, loud and fast and open to heat and wind of the road. May we suggest the power of the Ferrari 488 or the sex of the Rolls-Royce Dawn? It needs to roar to life beneath you, skid into the turns, make others choke on your dust. Driving in an open white convertible made Thompson feel like King Farouk. Today it might feel Beyonce and JZ, opulent and so, so fast.
It doesn’t matter that it can’t last. This is about the splurge, about the stretching of limits. Vegas is about the present rather than the future, the taste rather than the nourishment. That’s the premise of the Hangover. That’s the premise of the American Dream. Take it again from Thompson: “Old elephants limp off to the hills to die; old Americans go out to the highway and drive themselves to death with huge cars.”
Of course, there is the chance that you aren’t an old elephant and will wake up to find yourself locked out and atop a sleeping tiger instead of eternally dreaming of the endless savanna. In which case, we recommend you befriend a locksmith in Las Vegas for that fancy car and a zookeeper for that tiger you stole.