The future of electric vehicle – battery or fuel cell?

Electric vehicles are nothing new – we’re all familiar with the technology, and several are already available to the mass market. But is the future of transport really with the battery electric vehicle (BEV)? Or will another technology prove to be a more viable option for motorists and businesses?
62% of automotive executives believe BEV will fail

According to KPMG’s Global Automotive Executive Survey 2017, 62% of the automotive executives asked believed that “battery electric vehicles will fail due to infrastructure challenges”. Certainly, for real-world use, the barriers for electric vehicles are charging and range. With a society built around transport that can be refuelled with no downtime, switching to a slower system is not going to be a popular move – for drivers or businesses.

For BEVs to become successful, we’d need to revolutionise battery technology, implement widespread recharging infrastructure (Tesla’s investment in America is a prime example of how this could be achieved, though they still only have 340 supercharger stations in North America), and possibly move away from private vehicle ownership to a shared, rented model, in which travellers would be able to switch to a new vehicle when needed. This is a major shift in behaviour for consumers – in the short and medium term, it seems unlikely.

But is there an alternative? The current feeling is that fuel cell electric vehicles could offer the answer.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles
Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEV) run on electricity, but unlike BEV, they produce it within the vehicle. They combine hydrogen and oxygen to create electricity, which then runs the motor. The waste products are heat and water vapour, eliminating CO2, NO2 and pipe emissions.

The key difference for drivers is that FCEVs can be refuelled in a time comparable to conventional diesel or petrol vehicles. It takes less than ten minutes to refuel using pressurised hydrogen, whereas an electric vehicle can take between 30 minutes and 12 hours to recharge (depending on the size of battery and speed of the charging point). Recharging technology is improving all the time, but as FCEV is already has efficient refuelling method, BEVs are behind in the race. Another factor is the availability of recharging/refuelling points. It’s possible to integrate hydrogen refuelling into existing petrol stations, whereas electric recharging points have to be created. There are electric charging points available, but the scale of this infrastructure would need massive investment before it became a viable option for most. Plus, the driving range of a FCEV is comparable to a diesel car – meaning a similar level of service with limited culture change.

It sounds like FCEVs are the perfect answer to a tricky problem. But as with anything, there is no silver bullet. As we’ve said, FCEVs don’t emit CO2, NO2 and other well-known pollutants, but they do produce water vapour, which is still a greenhouse gas. It traps heat within the earth’s atmosphere instead of letting it escape, thereby contributing to climate change. The levels and impact of water vapour are far less understood than other greenhouse gases, but switching to hydrogen-fuelled vehicles may just delay another radical change until later, instead of solving the problem.

Another issue for both BEVs and FCEVs is the source of the electricity of hydrogen to power both type of engines. Yes, the pipe emissions from both are considered carbon neutral, but the energy both need has to be produced somewhere. If the electricity and hydrogen are produced from renewable sources, then both are environmentally sound options. If not, then we are simply moving the problem of emissions back up the supply chain.

Until there is significant infrastructure investment, however, neither types of vehicle will be widespread. But for the medium-term, fuel cell electric vehicles could be the real winners in the drive towards sustainable transport.

Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles – the essential facts
• Less than 10 minutes – refuelling time
• 200-300 miles – range of a FCEV on one refuel
• Water vapour and heat – the waste products from FCEVs
• 62% – the number of executives that believe BEVs will fail