Driving in any kind of efficiency marathon is incredibly tiring. If you’re competing, momentum is king – if you have it you’re doing well, and if you don’t, the only way is down. For your fuel economy or your range, anyway.
Fortunately, in the RAC Future Car Challenge I was driving the only hydrogen fuel cell-powered car, the Toyota FCHV-adv prototype, and for some reason that I still don’t understand the officials couldn’t measure it against all the other entries.
That meant I had free reign to drive it as I’d drive a petrol or diesel car, and in turn I could get an idea of how the technology works in the real world. The run (it’s not a race, as we were told repeatedly) went from Brighton’s Metropole hotel to Pall Mall in London, and there were a good mix of roads along the way.
The Metropole hotel is the very one that the original pioneers of motoring ended up at on their first run from London to Brighton in 1896, so it made a fitting place to start for the newest generation.
Among the cars in the line-up were models big and small, powered by petrol, diesel, electric, Toyota’s ‘Full Hybrid’ and range-extender hybrid systems, a hydrogen fuel cell and even biofuel.
They were in all kinds of states of advancement, too. The FCHV-adv I was driving felt truly retro, based on Toyota’s own Highlander and ‘blessed’ with the lowest-resolution sat nav screen I’ve ever seen. It was chosen as the model to fit with hydrogen power for its large dimensions, not its flashiness.
But here’s the thing. Throughout my time at the wheel the car was actually really pleasant. The throttle response had been set up to be quite soft, like an old Lexus from the ‘90s, and the suspension gave a really comfortable ride along with a high driving position.
The hydrogen tank was nowhere near full when I got in, but there were still 170 miles to go to empty. As time and the miles wore on, that projection stayed in sync with the miles the car was covering, so it seems like even this large, heavy prototype has got a range significantly higher than most highly-advanced electric cars.
The problem is that hydrogen is difficult to produce at the moment. It has to be ‘cracked’ away from water with a very complex, very high-energy process, but in the USA it still seems to work out a lot cheaper than petrol, at between $2 and $3 per US gallon. That’s about half what their ‘gasoline’ costs.
Hydrogen offers more than just cheap refills with a promise of cheaper ones to come, though. It offers the opportunity to drive the way we’ve always driven; to be able to fill up as normal but for less money, and then to go about our business until our cars need refilling again.
So what’s the catch? Well, fuel cell cars will be pretty expensive for some years to come, and it’ll take a lot for companies like Shell, Esso, BP and Total to start investing in hydrogen pumps and tanks at their fuel stations. Hydrogen is difficult and potentially dangerous to store, and while oil companies are still making endless billions out of oil supplies, keeping the status quo is in their interests.
Back at the wheel of the FCHV-adv I felt perfectly free to drive normally, using the impressive torque of the electric motor and enjoying the relative silence around town. As time goes on the system can be integrated into many models in Toyota’s range, like the Auris for example – most are already primed for it.
Look out for it in Japan first. They adopt and adapt to new technologies much more quickly than we do, so it’s likely to hit Japan in 2015, some years before it comes to Europe.
All the infrastructure within Toyota and its models is already there. It just needs some investment in public awareness and refuelling stations. Honda has provided one hydrogen filling station in Swindon, but it’s the only one in Britain so far.
That’s a shame, because there’s a huge amount of potential in the FCHV-adv and hydrogen technology. The sooner public awareness comes around to it the better, because companies like Toyota will be able to unleash fully-formed, supremely refined and useful products that are already ahead of the electric-only game, in every way other than public infrastructure.
Companies have the technology and they have the will to build fuel cell cars. What they don’t have is the right moment in history to make it happen. Yet.