Zero Emission Vehicles (ZEV) – are the “format wars” just beginning?

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Battery electric vehicles (BEV) have run away with the early market share for zero emission vehicles, perhaps understandably as electrical infrastructure for charging is tweaked from a comprehensive baseline, whereas hydrogen fuelling infrastructure for fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEV) must be started from scratch – you can adapt your house or a streetlight add a BEV charger but every FCEV fuelling station is a mini- planning and engineering project with plant to be specified and concrete poured. BEV owners may be tempted to think that a zero emission vehicle VHS/Betamax style “format war” is over before it’s even begun.

Leaving aside the pub bore’s argument about Betamax actually being the technically superior system, this particular format war potentially has several decades to run for the following reasons :

  • The refuelling experience for an FCEV is similar to filling a petrol or diesel tank. Whilst you can’t plug it in at home and forget it as with a BEV, refuelling on the go will undoubtedly be a quicker prospect for the foreseeable future, with a full hydrogen tank and several hundred miles of range available in a few minutes. This will be a big factor in consumer choice – not everyone can guarantee the availability of a charger at or near their home
  • The number of hydrogen fuelling stations is going to rise rapidly – which it has to, given the tiny number currently operating, some of which are effectively little more than demonstrators. Heavy vehicles have to decarbonise as surely as passenger cars, and this will not be achieved by building heavy BEVs. There is a point at which the mass of battery needed for propulsion becomes an unacceptable percentage of the axle weight and makes the payload size uneconomic. The boom in hydrogen fuelling for municipal vehicles and buses is already underway, with a public network serving trucks, and initially at least to a far lesser extent, passenger cars.
  • As large scale FCEV production ramps up, smaller vehicles will also benefit from the expansion in production of FCEV powertrains which, by convention, must get cheaper to produce. There are already (in 2021) two FCEV passenger cars available to buy off the forecourt – consumer choice must surely track the rollout of the powertrain technology and fuelling stations.

Do you think that by 2030 with a vastly expanded re-powering network for both types of ZEV and a growth in alternative “vehicle as a service”-type ownership models, FCEV is going to offer a genuinely viable alternative to BEV – there are potentially millions of motorists in the UK alone for whom it could be a better lifestyle fit – or by that time will advances in battery technology and capacity, and the availability of rapid chargers, mean that BEV retains its market position as the VHS?

Gavin Bollan is Technical Director at ITPEnergised.