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Fuel Cell Electric Cars Are Not The Future, But Maybe Later

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Charging Toyota-Mirai Hydrogen Car

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 while a few like General Motors and Ford are dabbling.

Similar Results, Different Processes

(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 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 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 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 , 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 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 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 , 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 with PhyOrg.

Another 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 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 have been made. Add to that the strong subsidies and marketplace incentives provided by , 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 GF 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.

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Editorials

Electric Car Owners Deserve A Simple Charging Solution

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New Volvo XC90 SUV Plugin charging

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 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 , 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 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 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.

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Editorials

The American Dream is the Fantasy of a Fast Car

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Driving in Las Vegas

“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 . 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 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 for that fancy car and a zookeeper for that tiger you stole.

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Chevrolet

Three Reasons Why There will be a New Chevrolet Corvette ZR1

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C6 Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 front angle, blue

Like most enthusiasts, I was taken aback by the recent reports claiming that Chevrolet is not currently considering a new Corvette ZR1, on the basis that the new Z06 is just too darn good. That had me thinking — what if it never considers one? Fans of the American icon might find the idea blasphemous, but the ZR1 has skipped a generation.

The latest Z06 continues the model’s tradition of outperforming the outgoing ZR1, and while no one can deny its track cred, I for one believe the bowtie brand has three good reasons to develop an even more capable vehicle, one that wears the ZR1 badge. In fact, with a healthy sports car segment, there will most certainly always be a ZR1 so long as there is a Corvette.

Without further adieu, click next for reason number one.

In Performance Circles, ZR1 Means “Ultimate”

GM and Chevrolet will be remiss to think we haven’t been spoiled by the ZR1 name and what it entails. OK, fine, the Z06 is now a supercar. That’s great and all, but the industry has progressed to a point where “supercar” is no longer a buzz word, where a higher level of performance now exists. I believe the term being used more and more each year to describe cars at this level is “hypercar”.  Examples of hypercars? To name a few, the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport and the Pagani Huayra. The LaFerrai, McLaren P1 and Porsche 918 hybrids also fall into that category.

Compared to those high-powered machines, would you call the Z06 a hypercar? If the answer is no, then bring on the ultimate Vette — the ZR1!

I am not saying the Corvette ZR1 needs to be a 1,000 horsepower beast; rather, it now has something even grander to aspire to. But it’s easy to imagine an 800 hp or more ZR1 that is priced less than $150,000 – easy! If Chevrolet was able to offer such a similar value proposition with a supercar-fighting ZR1, it can do so again with a hypercar-fighting ZR1.

A Popular Corvette Means Happy Bean Counters

If the reports are true, then the C7 better be a success, otherwise the future of Corvette as we know it, particularly that of the Z06 and ZR1, will be in question.

GM and Chevrolet are hell bent on making the new sports car as appealing as possible to attract a wider and younger audience, hence why the car looks the way it does (just what are we going to do about that rear end?) and features many of the content it does. We can all agree that it needs to be a, if not the, highlight of the conversation not just for one or two auto shows, but for years to come. And what better way to achieve that than always being compared to the world’s best? The C7 Z06 will hardly ever be compared to the LaFerrari, the P1 or even the Veyron, but a ZR1 sure will.

Just like how the previous ZR1 breathed much-needed life (and even chutzpah) into the C6 lineup, thus keeping it in the conversation for a few more years, a new ZR1 could and will do the same for the C7 lineup down the line. Going back to reason 1, imagine how much talk there will be about a Corvette that offered near 918, LaFerrari and P1 performance for a fraction of their price? All that talk will translate into invaluable ‘free’ marketing for the entire lineup, resulting in more sales and more profits. GM’s beancounters will be laughing their way to the bank.

GM is Not Broke

When the C6 ZR1 was being developed, it was during a time when GM was, well, broke. In fact, the company was worse than broke, but look at what it created — a Nurburgring-tearing Blue Devil that had snobbish non-Americans speaking the name “Corvette”. When was the last time that happened?

Fast forward almost a decade and GM is practically minting money, at least when compared to what it was doing before. While it has its priority straight — focus resources on building attainable, highly-competitive vehicles — the effects of a halo performance machine on a Chevrolet lineup composed of relatively bland cars has not been lost on its executives. As the ultimate expression of GM’s performance capabilities, a C7 ZR1 will likely be a beneficiary of the money put aside to pursue the company’s performance ambitions, if not only to serve as the answer to the best the world has to offer.

Considering that the sports car segment is heating up, with the likes of an all-new Toyota Supra, Acura NSX and Nissan GT-R soon to join the fray, GM will have its work cut out to keep the C7 Corvette relevant, at least until the C8 comes along. Because of the increased competition, there is more reason for ZR1 now than ever before.

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