A decade or so ago, it seemed like hydrogen cars could be the long-range, clean alternative to fossil fuels we were looking for. Batteries didn’t seem up to the job, the infrastructure could be built out by converting gas stations and we should never run out. But after years of massive growth in the electric vehicle space, hydrogen cars are still rare, expensive and only available in limited areas.
That’s why it’s surprising to hear that Bosch, the world’s largest automotive supplier, recently invested in hydrogen truck manufacturer Nikola and began work on hydrogen components despite staying out of the hydrogen vehicle market for the past 15 years. While the company looked at the industry over a decade ago, Juergen Gerhardt says there originally wasn’t a business case.
Now, though, Gerhardt — who serves as the senior vice president of fuel cell mobility solutions at Bosch — says that the company’s rapidly working on developing control systems for hydrogen powertrains. Similar control systems for internal combustion engines and electric powertrains are a huge part of Bosch’s business, and Gerhardt says that Bosch realised it needed to be a part of fuel cell powertrains.
So while hydrogen car technology has fallen out of favour with a lot of people pushing toward a sustainable future for the automobile, one of the most important companies in the automotive landscape is getting involved in the market.
Two major things have changed since Bosch originally looked at hydrogen that have made this investment possible, Gerhardt told Gizmodo. First, early hydrogen cars required massive tanks and systems that took up most of their trunks and engine bays. That made them far less practical than ICE cars or EVs.
Second, early hydrogen cars had weak and expensive batteries. That put more stress on the fuel cell, which had to generate energy quickly to compensate for the inability of the battery to provide enough power for quick acceleration.
Now, though, cheaper batteries and more compact drivetrains and storage tanks are helping to make a business case for hydrogen cars. Or, more likely, hydrogen trucks.
See, part of the reason that hydrogen hasn’t lived up to expectations is that it was originally conceived as a way to solve all of our problems without changing our driving habits or costing more. Over time, little infrastructure investment and expensive vehicles have failed to keep up with the ever-cheaper EVs that can now handle hundreds of miles. For most use cases and most people, an EV is still going to be cheaper.
So Bosch isn’t betting that hydrogen becomes the sole fuel of the future. Instead, it forecasts that 20 per cent of non-ICE cars and trucks will eventually be fuel cell vehicles.
Nikola is a perfect example of a use case ideally suited to hydrogen vehicles. Even if you could drastically increase the range and charging speed of current electric drivetrains, long-haul trucking presents two huge barriers to electrification.
First, batteries are heavy. While high efficiency can compensate for that in passenger cars, trucks have a bigger problem. Commercial trucks are weight restricted to a gross vehicle weight of 36,290kg on most highways. That means that, if your electric powertrain weighs 2,270kg more than a traditional powertrain, your maximum amount of cargo (and therefore revenue) has a lower ceiling.
Additionally, long-haul trucks drive a lot. The hint is in the name. If you’re covering hundreds of thousands of miles per year, even with a high range you’re going to be doing a lot of fast charging every year. Fast charging degrades batteries, which means that the life of your huge battery pack isn’t going to be as long as your business may require.
And because routes can be planned and optimised, companies can use hydrogen trucks on routes with fuelling infrastructure as they wait for large-scale availability.
For the same reasons, high-mile passenger car drivers may opt for hydrogen in the future. While the current fuel-cell vehicles on sale — described as “first-gen” hydrogen vehicles by Gerhardt — are more expensive to make than an EV, they should reach cost parity around the third generation. How long it takes to get to a third-gen system, though, is subject to how much infrastructure Nikola and other companies are able to build out. Cheaper fuel is a necessity.
The current price at hydrogen stations is typically around $20 per kilogram, which the California Fuel Cell Partnership says is energy equivalent to paying $8 per gallon of gasoline. Long-term, though, Gerhardt says that with cheap electricity and economies of scale hydrogen can be produced and provided profitably at $4-5 per kilogram.
Editor's Note: Hydrogen stations are not common in Australia, but there is one opening in December of this year.
If that holds true, that’d be like getting gas for $0.50 per litre. And since it can be produced anywhere, hydrogen prices shouldn’t fluctuate as much as gasoline prices.
To be sure, there are still major obstacles. Hydrogen requires a lot of energy to produce and will never be cheaper than just powering cars with that energy directly. Most hydrogen currently produced is done via steam reforming of natural gas, which is only 65-75 per cent efficient.
But while it’s not as efficient as direct electric powertrains, it is a clean and dense way to store power. Especially in countries like Germany, which currently has more power than it needs and nowhere to put it, there’s a case for producing hydrogen with renewables when there’s extra capacity in the grid.
Most importantly, though, someone needs to bite the bullet and start building more stations if the technology is ever going to succeed. Building more stations isn’t useful if no one has hydrogen cars, but no one wants to buy a hydrogen car if there aren’t stations to fill it up at.
It’s a paradox that makes investment on either side hard to financially justified. EVs got over that initially because early adopters could charge their cars at home. Now, with more on the road, businesses can justify investing in more -public charging infrastructure. Hydrogen, though, isn’t something you can get from a wall outlet. Ultimately, you need a company that’s willing to lose a lot of money to create a viable network of fuelling stations.
Nikola might be that company, which is a huge reason that Bosch is getting involved with them. The goal is, with a lot of startup money and tech know-how from Bosch, Nikola can do for hydrogen infrastructure what Tesla did for EV infrastructure. And if the goal is to be like Tesla, they’ve got the name for it.