Executive Education


28 Jul 2017

Professor Saker: Government should focus on hydrogen fuel cell cars and related infrastructure

hybrid car fueling up

Government plans to increase the number of electric cars on our roads is not new news, writes Professor Jim Saker, Director of the SBE's Centre for Automotive Management. Virtually everyone in the motor industry has been talking about this for years.

This week, Environment Secretary Michael Gove warned that Britain "can't carry on" using petrol and diesel vehicles.

His comments followed the Government announcement on Tuesday that it would ban all new diesel and petrol-powered cars from 2040 due to fears that rising levels of nitrogen oxide pose a major risk to public health.

The declaration sparked a myriad of polarised reactions reflected in the mass and social media furore. Those for-and-against the move loudly vocalised their opinions. Public figures such as the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, proclaimed that action had to be taken now, not in 2040.

But absent from the heated national debate was the industry itself. Why?

The impression given by the media's coverage of the announcement is that by 2040 we will all be driving around in Nissan Leafs.

But the UK car industry, rather less conspicuously, has been moving away from the straight internal combustion engine for a number of years, with Volvo announcing only last week that they were ending the production of petrol/diesel-only power trains in 2019.

Perhaps the reason for the sudden interest is not so much the plan itself, but more how it came about. It was not a willing philanthropic environmental gesture: the Government’s hand was forced by the High Court verdict against them for non-compliance with EU Emission Regulations, plus the fact that the French Government announced similar plans a few days ago which set a precedent.

And the way the story has been portrayed almost qualifies in the words of the US President as being ‘fake’ news.

The lack of industry reaction has been down to the fact that this scenario was one that virtually everyone was predicting and has been planning for it for some time. The debate is whether hybrid is a better option that a straight electric vehicle (EV). The expansion of EVs will be determined primarily by the development of the recharging infrastructure.

At present, unless you have a house with a driveway, recharging becomes highly problematic. By comparison, Toyota launched the Prius hybrid in the UK in 2000 and that the company has approximately 80% of all hybrids on the road, this is a proven technology.

The downside is that these cars still require a small petrol engine to charge the battery that powers the car and as a result there are still emissions.

For many, the more interesting initiative would be in the feasibility of having Hydrogen Fuel Cell-powered cars. These would be zero emission vehicles that do not require the recharging infrastructure of the EV.

The downside is the lack of hydrogen refuelling stations.

It has been estimated that there needs to be 1,125 hydrogen stations to cover the whole of the UK but these are up to 8 times more expensive to build than the conventional petrol station.

At the moment hydrogen is a by-product of other industrial production processes and is relatively cheap but if demand was higher it would have to be produced potentially raising the cost.

The future of the car industry will be for the first time not in the hands of the manufacturers but be dictated by the infrastructure that Governments develop.

This is troubling as it was the UK Government that subsidised diesel transport with the intention of reducing CO2 emissions causing diesel cars to rise in number form 3.2mill to 10mill since 2000 thus causing problems with high levels of Nitrogen Dioxide that have led to the major health issues where the gas density is high.

The future Government policy will be scrutinised carefully, but one is left reflecting that Toyota got it right 20 years ago with the hybrid technology; maybe they have got it right this time with the production of the Toyota Mirai, the only production hydrogen fuel cell hybrid on the market at present.

For people living in the East Midlands there is a certain irony that the Government is wanting to electrify cars but have declined to electrify the East Midlands train route to London.

For more about Professor Saker, please visit his profile.