Welcome Your IET account
Traffic on UK motorway

Hydrogen or electric vehicles? Why the answer is probably both

Image credit: Dreamstime

The distinct virtues of the two main emerging types of greener transport mean both are likely to flourish, depending on the requirements of different types of user.

Battery-powered electric vehicles (BEVs) are gradually displacing the internal combustion engine in the move toward greener forms of transportation. An alternative is the hydrogen vehicle, or fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV). Both are propelled by electric motors, but where the BEV is powered by a lithium ion battery, the FCEV uses a fuel cell to convert hydrogen into electricity.

It’s common to see the two technologies pitted against one another as alternatives. The major point of contention is whether hydrogen is as green as its supporters like to argue. That’s because while hydrogen vehicles emit no emissions, the process by which hydrogen is extracted and compressed into fuel tanks results in greater efficiency losses. Volkswagen has been quite public in asserting that this makes the BEV the clear winner.

However, there are other leading manufacturers, notably Toyota, Honda and Hyundai, who are clearly prioritising FCEVs. Companies investing in this technology are betting that hydrogen will likely play a much bigger role in our energy needs in general in the decades to come. There are also greener methods of extraction being developed, such as obtaining hydrogen from biomass.

Another key area of comparison is cost. Here, the BEV appears to have the upper hand for now. That’s partly because FCEVs are not being manufactured on a large enough scale yet. However, a recent report from Ballard and Deloitte China concludes that FCEVs will be cheaper to run than BEVs within a decade.

The FCEV boasts great benefits in areas where BEVs typically struggle. A major drawback of the battery-powered electric vehicle is range anxiety — fears the vehicle won’t travel far enough on a single charge. Because the energy in a fuel cell is much more densely packed, these vehicles can offer much better range without the need to refuel.

The FCEV also offers superior charging times. A major drawback for BEVs is the excessive charging time, with vehicles often taking hours to fully charge despite shorter ranges. In contrast, a hydrogen vehicle can be fuelled in roughly the same time it would take to add fuel to your traditional diesel or petrol vehicle.

These factors matter more for some vehicles than for others. At Pailton Engineering, we provide bespoke steering system solutions to a range of different vehicle manufacturers. Speaking from the perspective of someone who works closely with bus manufacturers and commercial vehicle manufacturers, the current debate between advocates of BEVs and FCEVs is too heavily skewed in favour of passenger cars.

Range anxiety and charging time are problematic for all of us, but if you have a fleet of heavy goods vehicles travelling long distances, the benefits of longer ranges are more apparent. To help alleviate range anxiety for these large vehicles, lightweighting is a big trend in zero-emission vehicle manufacturing, as less weight requires less energy to haul it.

Similarly, if you’re aiming to replace a fleet of diesel-powered buses with a green alternative, the fact that hydrogen-powered buses take so much less time to charge is an obvious selling point.

By asking which of these two technologies is superior, we risk falling into the trap of always seeing them in competition. That need not be the case. The answer will depend on which sector we’re talking about and the specific needs of any given vehicle manufacturer. If there was room for petrol and diesel, then why not electric and hydrogen?

It’s impossible to predict precisely what percentage of our transportation fleet will be accounted for by hydrogen vehicles by 2050. In the medium term, BEVs are likely to maintain their lead over their hydrogen equivalents in the automobile market. In other sectors, however, the picture is quite different. Both technologies are good bets. For manufacturers of buses, trucks and commercial vehicles, it will be important to recognise that both batteries and hydrogen fuel cells will probably play an important part in our greener future.

Roger Brereton is head of sales at steering systems specialist Pailton Engineering.

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles

Info Message

We use cookies to give you the best online experience. Please let us know if you agree to all of these cookies.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them