Technology partner Expleo has undertaken research revealing that 84% of automotive leaders believe hydrogen-powered vehicles can help reduce the automotive industry’s carbon emissions. Although there’s widespread openness to adoption of the technology, deployment is currently being hampered by a lack of necessary infrastructure development.

With the focus of today’s COP26 schedule being transport, gasworld took the opportunity to speak with Steve McEvoy, Vice President – Automotive at Expleo. McEvoy answered questions centred around the company’s research, primarily the future of hydrogen vehicle adoption, infrastructure solutions, and challenges facing the industry.

According to Expleo’s report, ‘The Road to Hydrogen Cars – Making the Automotive Sector Cleaner’, 86% of UK automotive leaders believe hydrogen vehicles can help reduce the industry’s carbon emissions.

Despite this, leaders are reluctant to prioritise investment in the technology over battery electric vehicles (EVs).

What are the reasons behind hydrogen technology losing out to EV?

SE: Combating climate change continues to lead agendas across the globe, and the automotive industry is proactively playing its part in addressing these issues, as it looks to develop and adopt technologies that will drive sustainability.

And it’s true that as part of this, hydrogen is gaining currency as a possible addition to the sustainable energy mix for mobility, which is supported by our recent research that shows 71% of UK automotive leaders believe hydrogen-fuelled vehicles are better for the environment than battery electric vehicles (EV).

H2X's new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which surpassed sales in excess of $50m in four days.

H2X’s new hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, which saw sales in excess of $50m in four days.

Source: H2X.

However, hydrogen as a technology and a workable solution is significantly behind EV in terms of infrastructure and investment. Consumer access to the fuel is also holding its adoption back –currently, hydrogen is available at just 11 service stations in the UK.

So you’ve got a situation where investment in both the production of green hydrogen and the distribution and storage for mobility use is not yet sufficient.

What are the perceived ‘main challenges’ towards scaling up/mass-adoption of hydrogen vehicles?

SE: While some big steps have been taken, challenges around not only the production and scaling up of the technology remain, but also concerns around perceived safety.

Consumer confidence has yet to be fully tested, but I suspect many consumers may harbour negative associations with the word ‘hydrogen’, so it’s equally important to look at education, as when LNG was launched, to show people it is safe. This can also be done through practical applications in motorsport, which has a long history of developing and demonstrating the safety of new technologies.

This is not an overnight process – the industry can’t go from where it is now to mass-production of road-ready vehicles without taking the necessary steps to invest, scale up and educate the consumer on the technology.

Top barriers to hydrogen adoption according to auto leaders

Top barriers to hydrogen adoption according to auto leaders

Source: Expleo.

According to Expleo’s report, green hydrogen is something that’s held investment back, what is the uncertainty around green hydrogen that’s causing this?

SE: I believe sustainable production of green hydrogen is critical to the future of hydrogen-fuelled mobility. The way in which we generate hydrogen is key – grey hydrogen is damaging, but green is not. But the necessary investment in production is not yet in place to make green hydrogen accessible to mass market.

And it’s for this reason that I believe manufacturers have some reservations, they are unable to commit fully to developing vehicles for this technology until sufficient investment is made in scaling up the production of green hydrogen and its distribution.

Having said that, we are seeing significant leaps forward – the cost of production is declining and there is significant interest hydrogen as a viable addition to the energy mix, with investors and governments currently working on long-term solutions.

Do the numbers suggest that EVs may be a transitional stage between petrol/diesel vehicles and hydrogen?

SE: The research suggest that the future will be about a new energy mix, rather than a dependency on a single solution. In the new energy mix, EV is likely to be a major player, but one that’s supported by other solutions, such as green hydrogen. Green hydrogen has great potential as a viable clean energy mobility solution, and one that offers some significant benefits to some consumers over EV, for example it’s improved range versus EV.

The general move towards a cleaner and greener is exciting and the mass adoption we’re starting to see of EVs is great news for sustainability and the economy, together with hydrogen as part of a new energy mix, it promises the prospect of cleaner air, quieter cities, and the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs in support of these new industries.

Does Expleo’s research indicate a timeframe by which hydrogen may see adoption equivalent to the current level of EVs on the road?

SE: Our research shows that more than half (59%) of the automotive sector leaders we surveyed believe the UK is less than five years away from the first hydrogen cars being on our roads.

“…the UK is less than five years away from the first hydrogen cars being on our roads.”

Around 60% of all our European respondents also believe we’ll also see the first hydrogen fuelling station open in local markets within that time range, with 53% going as far as to say they believe hydrogen fuelling stations will be commonplace across Europe within two years as well.

We believe we’ll start to see real traction in the next five-10 years, as with any emerging industry, striking the balance between supply and demand is going to be important and it takes time to reach critical mass.

What are the advantages of using hydrogen as opposed to electric when it comes to road-going vehicles?

SE: Put simply – the batteries used in hydrogen vehicles use fewer rare materials than EV’s. For example some current EV technology uses lithium which is finite and only found in a few countries. This is significant and although EV battery technology is evolving at super speed, hydrogen offers a less resource intensive option to add to the energy mix.

In addition, the production of green hydrogen by the electrolysis of water (which is one way to create hydrogen) only requires electricity generated through carbon-neutral means. When a fuel cell converts hydrogen into electricity, its only emissions are water vapour and warm air. That means hydrogen can both be produced and used without the creation of any additional carbon, and there’s virtually no risk of it ever running out.

How automotive leaders from different countries rank their top three benefits of hydrogen vehicles:

How automotive leaders from different countries rank their top three benefits of hydrogen vehicles:

Source: Expleo.

Sounds amazing – and it is, but currently, it’s held back by a lack of investment in the production of green hydrogen as it’s currently more attractive and efficient for many to continue to invest in EV, which is a highly viable solution. However, the fact remains that improving battery technology is heavily reliant on minerals and finite resources. Hydrogen fuel cells on the other hand can use a less complex battery (with fewer finite resources) and when you combine this with green hydrogen you get a more sustainable hybrid solution to add to the mobility mix.

How many European automotive leaders were involved in the study and what is the general consensus for hydrogen adoption?

SE: Our research surveyed just over 225 automotive leaders across the UK, France, and Germany. The consensus for hydrogen adoption was positive, but there was a consistent theme around the effective development of infrastructure and the production of green hydrogen that many felt must be overcome before the technology can be scaled and widely adopted.

What does the future hold for hydrogen fuel adoption?

SE: We believe that hydrogen fuel cells can be a significant part of automotive mobility mix, in my view EVs will continue to hold a key place, but hydrogen has an important part to play, not only because it uses less finite resources, but also because it offers better range than EVs can.

How regional leaders differ in their opinion of when hydrogen vehicles are likely to be commonplace on European roads:

How regional leaders differ in their opinion of when hydrogen vehicles are likely to be commonplace on European roads:

Source: Expleo.

Our industry needs to look at the big picture and develop solutions in step with demand and investment, but it’s clear to me that businesses around the world currently consider both hydrogen and EVs as essential parts of the solution when it comes to environmental and economic challenges.

Sustainable fuels are integral to the future of mobility, and to inspire innovation in the sector, investment is undoubtedly required - it will be interesting to see how both the mobility mix and green fuel mix continue to evolve over the coming years.

Expleo’s full report can be read here.