By on February 2, 2011

Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles (FCVs) are enjoying something of a comeback lately, as everyone from Hyundai and Honda to GM and Daimler are talking about forthcoming production versions of test-fleet FCVs. And with EVs poised to both dominate the short-term green-car game and inevitably disappoint consumers, it’s no surprise that the perennial “fuel of the future” is enjoying a fresh look from automakers. But if high cost and range anxiety are the flies in the EV ointment, the FCV-boosters are finding their hydrogen cars tend to suffer from the same problems. Daimler says

By 2015, we think a fuel cell car will not cost more than a four-cylinder diesel hybrid that meets the Euro 6 emissions standard.

but that by no means guarantees its Mercedes FCV will be truly “affordable” by any reasonable standard, as diesel-electrics are considered one of the most expensive applications of internal combustion power. And then there’s the whole range issue. Yes, FCVs refuel faster than EVs, but even the most ambitious of Hydrogen-boosters, Daimler, are only pushing vehicles with a 250-mile range. Which is why we puzzled a bit over The Globe And Mail‘s assesment that

Three Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL models will make [a 125-day] global trek, which will seek to highlight the real-world benefits of fuel cells versus EVs – mainly their much further range

Flipping over to AutoMotorundSport, we find that the irony which completely escaped the G&M is threatening to overwhelm Daimler’s entire demonstration. And, as is only natural when things like this occur, there’s a bizarre TTAC connection…

So, I’m reading the AMundS write-up on the leg of the F-Cell world tour from Stuttgart to Reims, France, and both German writers start stuck in the F-Cell’s none-to-commodious back seat. Up front, two Americans seem to be trying to set a new speed record, as “Michael” of “Auto Blog” (presumabely Michael Harley of Autoblog) “stared, transfixed, at the speedo and passed the record numbers to his navigator, Jonny.” This “Jonny,” as it turns out, is none other than TTAC Alum and “Auto Trend” scribe Jonny Lieberman, who (literally) had a front-seat ticket for Daimler’s fuel-cell fiasco.

Apparently, even after reaching the F-Cell’s electronically-limited 178 KPH VMax, “The man from ‘Auto Blog'” did not want to give up “a single meter of “Unlimited German Autobahn” (NB: capitalization is a sign of German humor). According to the backseat Germans, the ride flew by thanks to both the velocity and the “extensive ravings” about previous trips to Germany with wives and Porsches.

The pace was only interrupted when a cell phone rang, and “Mission Control” asked the four journos to report when they’d consumed a quarter and half of their hydrogen tank. “Houston, we have a problem,” came the reply from inside the F-Cell, “our tank is already half-empty.”  The journalists are told not to exceed 100 KPH for the rest of the trip, and (counter-inuitively) “Michael” moved over to let least-likely hypermiler in recent memory, Mr Jonny Lieberman, behind the wheel.

The narrative continues:

The crossing of the Rhine has echoes of Apollo 13. “I have turned off all systems” says Mike… The pace now rests at 80 KPH. It doesn’t help. With almost 200 grams of hydrogen after 227 kilometers, the engine is turned off. “How much is that converted?” asks Mike. “Less than a Quarter-Pounder” reckons Jonny.

Inevitable reference here. Professional restraint here.

American stereotype-mongery aside, the real lesson here is that the first two F-Cell vehicles on the world tour didn’t even make it to the first refueling station, a temporary operation that was set up by the several internal-combustion-powered trucks that follow the world tour. Instead, both had to ride in the back of ICE-powered trucks to get to the fueling station, which itself was set up by trucks. Needless to say, part of Daimler’s goal with the Tour is to highlight the need for hydrogen refueling stations… but with enough infrastructure investment, EVs could do everything the F-Cell can. Absent a convincing advantage in range, the head-start in electrical infrastructure (as well as other efficiency considerations) seems to make EVs more practical as a wide-scale zero-emissions solution than FCVs… and the F-Cell World Tour doesn’t seem likely to change that perception. Especially if they keep letting lead-footed American writers do the driving.

Surf over to AMundS for more photos and German-language coverage of the F-Cell world tour

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36 Comments on “Range Anxiety Strikes Mercedes Fuel-Cell Convoy, TTAC Alum...”

  • avatar

    but with enough infrastructure investment, EVs could do everything the F-Cell can.

    If you conveniently ignore that whole “many hours or battery damage” dilemma when it comes to refueling.

    • 0 avatar

      If you conveniently ignore that whole “many hours or battery damage” dilemma when it comes to refueling.
      Of course. This is why I find myself warming up towards the Better Place-style battery swap system. Still, Daimler is pushing the range, not the refuel time, advantages of the F-Cell in its press materials. Daimler’s Thomas Weber even says
      With this unique circumnavigation of the world we are emphasizing the high level of technical maturity of our electric vehicles with fuel cell. Such an undertaking would not be possible, using purely battery-powered electric vehicles.
      If the diesel trucks accompanying the F-Cell convoy were carrying fresh batteries rather than Hydrogen tanks, this trip would be possible in an EV (provided the car could switch batteries). Meanwhile, the FCV apparently couldn’t make the trip either (having been trucked at least part of the initial leg), so the point is kind of moot.
      I’m not “anti-FCV” any more than I am “anti-EV”… different circumstances will favor different solutions. I’m just trying to be clear about the disconnect between what Daimler is trying to demonstrate and what it’s actually accomplishing.

    • 0 avatar

      My first draft included a mention of battery-swap concepts, but it got too convoluted and wasn’t worth the amount of editing it needed.
      IMO, the only infrastructure which will make BEVs a viable everyday vehicle for a significant percentage of users is battery swapping. All of the other offered alternatives tend to ignore one fundamental reality. To wit: Life is what happens while you’re making other plans. It’s all well and good to say that overnight charging is fine since it’ll be ready for you when you get up to go to work. Out here in the real world, unpredictable emergencies happen, and you sometimes have to get somewhere at midnight. And a half-charged EV isn’t going to cut it when that happens.

    • 0 avatar

      Out here in the real world, unpredictable emergencies happen, and you sometimes have to get somewhere at midnight.

      I know!  If only families were allowed to have more than one car…  What?  Mom has a minivan and dad commutes in an EV?  Nah – that’s crazy talk.

    • 0 avatar

      If I laboriously craft an example which can’t be dismissed by pulling a second car out of thin air, will you address the point instead of pretending it doesn’t exist?

    • 0 avatar

      Nobody has been able to adequately explain where they will store all the batteries at these change-over stations in order to deal with a demand the same as a petrol station. Even with the fact that you are charging from an outside source (ie the mains), you still have to have sufficient batteries on hand to satisfy demand. Even the best lithium ion battery has an energy density per volume at best 1/15th that of petrol so the buffer storage will have to compensate with more batteries. Where the hell will they all go?

      These change-over stations will have to be massive, so where do you find the capital to buy all the necessary real estate in the right areas? What about the substation needed to simultaneously charge all these batteries, that too will be gargantuan.

      Moreover, the whole scheme (or scam) relies on the whim of car manufacturers designing compatible hardware…good luck with that!

      Godd on you if you think the thing is a goer, I also hear there is some bloke with a bridge to sell!!

    • 0 avatar

      Yes, there are some situations where an BEV (an important distinction you make, as a FCHV is also an EV) may suffer from insufficient range. Even in a two-car or multi-car household, there is a possibility of the BEV being unavailable due to depleted capacity.
      You have a combination of:
      a) an emergency or short-notice trip needs to be taken
      b) all household gas vehicles are unavailable – for example, in the shop for maintenance
      c) the BEV has insufficient range due to excessive depletion or slow charging
      In households where this combination of events is somewhat likely to occur, an EV commuter vehicle may not be the best choice for an additional vehicle. Even so, there are options to hitch a ride from a neighbor or friend, or to call a taxi.
      I’m not sure how large a problem c) is, in truth. I would be quite uncomfortable buying an EV, even for commuter detail, that would not offer sufficient range to cover my typical needs under extreme conditions. For example, the Nissan Leaf offers between 60 miles and 130 miles of range, depending on conditions; 10 year capacity reduction will likely reduce the range to 45-100 miles. My typical commute is 25 miles round trip, I occasionally run errands or participate in extra-curricular activities that increase daily travel to 35-40 miles. The Leaf has barely sufficient range to meet my needs as a commuter vehicle, but would likely do so.
      Further, let’s take the point of your midnight emergency. Let’s say I arrive home after having traveled 35 miles on a balmy spring evening, resulting in a Leaf’s battery pack being depleted to 50% (12 kwh, I was enjoying the commute home). I arrive home at 7:00, plug in the Leaf, and walk upstairs. The Leaf starts charging at 8:30 due to reduced off-peak billing rates, dumping power into the battery pack at 3.3 kw. At 10:30 I suddenly realize that I’ve left the gas on at work! The battery pack is at 75% capacity by now, giving me 18 kwh to make my 12 mile dash to work (at 90 mph @ 500 wh/mi), followed by a somewhat relieved 12 mile (300 wh/mi) return pace home. Total pack remaining: 8.5 kwh, 33%.
      I’m home by 11:30. I plug the car back in to the wall, go upstairs and fall asleep. By 4:30 the car is fully charged and ready to go the next day.
      Let’s not forget the Ford Focus BEV charges at 6kw, which makes charge time even less of an issue. In the somewhat contrived example above, the BEV would have been > 90% by the time I realized I needed to leave at 10:30, and would have been fully charged again by 2:30 am.
      Yes, BEV charge time is a significant issue. But even these gen 1 mainstream EVs are good enough for most people, most of the time. If you (speaking generally) have alternate means of transport to cover you for the remaining 1-5% of the time, then they may already meet your needs.

    • 0 avatar
      SVX pearlie

      Current BEVs won’t even hit 178 kmph (about 110 mph), whereas ICE will comfortably go 120+.

      And driving at 100 kmph (60 mph) or even 80 mph (45 mph)? Useless.

      If FCV has BEV-like range at Autobahn speeds, it’s not suitable.

    • 0 avatar

      Honestly, I don’t see how battery swapping is going to be any quicker than recharging. I mean, by the time you flip the car upside down, find that little screw that holds the cover closed, pry open the compartment, and find that stupid pull strap that always gets stuck behind the batteries, you might as well have just plugged in.
      Non-starter, if you ask me.

    • 0 avatar

      “Nobody has been able to adequately explain where they will store all the batteries at these change-over stations in order to deal with a demand the same as a petrol station”

      Part of the Better Place concept is that the vehicle uses cell phone comm to find a battery swap station in route that has a charged battery pack available once the vehicle determines that there is insufficient charge left to reach the destination, and directs the driver to that station. Therefore, not every station needs to have a large supply of packs in the same way that a gas station needs to be prepared for an indeterminate # of customers, and thus each station can be limited in size as long as there is a good distribution of stations in a market. It’s still the case, tho, that each of these stations will be a significant capitol expense since it will require sophisticated automated systems that can swap battery packs quickly with limited human intervention.

  • avatar

    The advantage of a fuel cell car over a battery electric is clear and it is narrow and specific. It can be refueled in minutes instead of hours. Ranges stink on any of them, but it is literally impossible to drive a battery electric far enough to amortize the costs sunk into its construction during its service life. The fuel cell can be refueled, even if the range is the same. All you need is a supply of unicorn farts on every street corner and the sort of love of filling stations that someone must have to tour the country on a Harley 883 Sportster with a peanut tank. The primary failing of hydrogen fueled cars isn’t their pathetic range, it is the massive amount of energy wasted liberating hydrogen from its bonds. It is like the potential energy of holding a big rock over your head. You ‘create’ the energy by lifting the rock and holding it in the air. Gravity is great, but you have to fight it before you can use it. Hydrogen fueling is as workable today as perpetual motion machines.

    • 0 avatar

      The other main thing touted by proponents of fuel cells is that the source for hydrogen can come from anywhere. Electrolysis, natural gas, etc. While right now the most efficient way to create hydrogen is using something like natural gas and other fossil fuels, as the power grid moves towards “green energy”, you can possibly convert hydrogen with renewable energy sources almost exclusively.
      In reality, while it seems a waste, converting something like natural gas to hydrogen is quite efficient. I apologize for not having a source link off the top of my head, but using natural gas it is still twice as efficient as using petrol fuels for ICEs (the important thing to note is that you’re not “burning” the gas to make hydrogen, rather you are converting it directly by separating its chemical bonds). Of course, BEVs with their “straight” use of energy are the most efficient, but since FCVs are also essentially BEVs with a refillable energy pack (making it a straight shot for them to also be plugin vehicles), the inefficiency equation can be mitigated.
      The whole idea of using petrol as fuel is also a case of “massive waste of energy”. By the time you are done extracting the fuel (at a cost of a huge output of CO2 emissions), refine it, ship it, etc. there is already a massive amount of energy wasted.
      One last point is that current FCVs have a range of about 200 miles on a “tank” of hydrogen- I think this will only improve in the future.

    • 0 avatar

      Ducky, that may all be true but you end up with about 114,000 BTUs per gallon and you have a hard time finding another fuel that has that much energy density. The problem with replacing gasoline and diesel is that they’re pretty good liquid fuels.
      Frankly, if we’re going to run cars on a gaseous fuel, natural gas probably make more sense right now than hydrogen.
      Here’s a Ford Contour with 45K miles for $3300.
      It has an automatic, but there’s no reason why you can’t swap in some Contour SVT parts to make it a fun ride. Natural gas is about 2/3 the cost of gasoline, the conversion works automatically. When you run low on CNG, it switches to the gasoline tank. No range anxiety there.

    • 0 avatar

      Here’s a Ford Contour with 45K miles for $3300.
      That thing has been on offer for months. I don’t know what the catch is but clearly there’s something not right with the deal, or it would have been sold by now. I’d have checked it out myself, but I habitually avoid doing business with people who openly lie in their ads.

  • avatar

    Hydrogen is not an energy source.  It’s an energy storage device.  More energy is used to split it from oxygen (in water) than gained back when it’s burned (recombined with oxygen again).  Hydrogen extraction is analogous to battery charging.

    • 0 avatar

      “Hydrogen is not an energy source.  It’s an energy storage device.”

      You what? Maybe you didn’t phrase it correctly.

      Any fuel is energy storage and as such is a source of energy. Of course more energy is used to split it from oxygen in water than gained back when it’s burned. If the reverse was true, you’d basically have succeeded in making a perpetual motion machine, actually no, you’d have devised a means of creating energy!

    • 0 avatar

      So a gas engine is a perpetual motion machine? It takes less energy to refine the crude oil than what the resulting fuels contain. Surely you can see the difference.
      Hydrogen is rather like ethanol in its high cost of production.

    • 0 avatar

      “So a gas engine is a perpetual motion machine?”


      Just think it through for a moment….

      Right, with the proposed example, the product of the burn is water, which is where the two reactants were derived from, so if you’d somehow gained more energy from the burn than you’d put in to gain the reactants you’d have an energy creating process.

      Comparing it to a petrol engine is specious.

  • avatar

    In the words of the kid from The Simpsons:  “HA-ha!”

    I think we’ll see hydrogen-fueled vehicles for one reason:  natural gas providers will be providing the hydrogen, while proclaiming themselves environmental saviors.

  • avatar

    For such esteemed practitioners of automotive journalism, it’s amazing you didn’t take the time to reach out to the two primaries for a comment before republishing something that couldn’t be further from the… well … truth.

    • 0 avatar

      First of all, I never use the “J word” to describe my work here at TTAC. Holding that tottering construct over my head will get you nowhere.
      I spoke briefly to Jonny, and he simply said that he would write his own piece. I look forward to reading it and will update this piece with a link as needed. Ditto any response Mr Harley would like to provide.
      Look, I’m not trying to stir up any inter-journo drama… just interpreting what AMundS wrote. I’m sure AMundS’s writers didn’t expect their work to be circulated around the English-language blogs, and it’s only happening because the story has significance outside the autowriter social scene. If the actual story here (pro-FCV PR stunt bites corporation) wasn’t interesting, we wouldn’t have picked it up, and the whole “who-makes-who-look-like-what” angle is purely incidental to the value of this story. Moreover, this “incidental angle” wouldn’t have been brought up at all if Messrs Lieberman and Harley had already written about this intriguing story.
      If there are factual errors in my translation of AMundS’s account, fine. If you don’t like how Ze Germans made your colleagues or friends look, take it up with them.

    • 0 avatar

      It doesn’t matter what you call it: You didn’t take the time to contact one of the primaries to get their side of the story, yet you’re publishing this account as fact. This has less to do with journalism and more to do with living up to your name.
      We are taking it up with AMuS, but considering the drivel they pump out on a daily basis, we doubt we’ll get anywhere. TTAC, on the other hand, is better than that.

    • 0 avatar

      TTAC, on the other hand, is better than that.
      Thanks, really, but don’t judge AMundS before you read their print edition. Nobody covers the German industry better or road tests with more attention to quantifiable details. Their web presence… well, let’s just say all the buff books struggle there.

      Here’s the thing though: I’m not publishing the AMundS account as fact, I’m publishing it as an account. The use of the terms “apparently” and “the narrative continues” were meant to convey that. I even used the term “so I’m reading the AMundS account” to frame the whole anecdote. I never once say “I was there, this happened” or give the reader any indication that I have this information from anyone other than AMundS.

      Also, Mr Harley’s email is not posted on Autoblog’s staff list, and Mr Lieberman wouldn’t give me details because he is writing up his own version (as, I assume, is Mr Harley). If there were a simple “factual error” in the AMundS piece, why hasn’t someone (anyone) simply pointed it out? My perception is that the issue is with how the story was told, not the actual facts of the matter. And again, given the real value of the actual story here, how is it TTAC’s fault that two of the three people who were present (on Daimler’s dime?) haven’t reported word one about either the actual story or the journo-snark sideshow yet?

      Jonny tells me his beef is with Ze Germans, not TTAC. He says there is a factual issue, but he wants to address it in his own piece. We look forward to reading it and will follow up on the story when it goes live. Mr Harley is free to contact us or leave a comment clarifying his interpretation of events… we will also be watching Autoblog for follow-up. TTAC has long held that “truth” comes out of a process rather than from a single revelation… this case will be no exception.

      Meanwhile, as Jonny says, it’s just a story.


    • 0 avatar

      I think Ed was pretty clear that he was relating another publication’s account, not necessarily what actually happened. Ed’s comments about the Germans stereotyping Americans means, to me at least, that he was being somewhat skeptical of the account. Since Ed did contact Mr. Lieberman, who declined comment, or rather expressed that he prefers to respond at a time and place of his choosing, I don’t think you have any beef with Ed. At the most you can maybe say that the article should have mentioned the fact that Lieberman was contacted for comment, but since Jonny obviously had no problem with Ed publishing this post, I don’t think anyone else has standing to complain.
      Frankly, out of simple courtesy, if another writer said that they were planning on writing about a story in which they themselves had become part of the story, I’d just relay the story as reported and let  the other writer defend himself or herself in their own words.

    • 0 avatar
      Michael Harley

      “Especially if they keep letting lead-footed American writers do the driving.”
      Three F-Cell vehicles left Stuttgart Sunday morning en route to Paris. Car #1 contained three Chinese journalists. I was driving another car (Car #2) with Jonny and the embedded AMundS reporter in the back seat. The third car (Car #3) was driven by two Mercedes-Benz engineers.
      While the two engineers were alone in their vehicle, the Chinese and Americans were both laden with three passengers and our full luggage (adding about 750 pounds to each vehicle).
      What our AMundS friend fails to mention is that Car #1 and Car #2 both ran out of fuel on the side of the road during the first leg of the first day. We were not alone.
      You going to Chicago? If so, let’s meet and swap cards so you have my e-mail address.
      – Mike

  • avatar

    “German humor”

    Two words I have never before seen juxtaposed.

  • avatar
    Lynn E.

    Oh Boy, Wow, Ha Ha somebody tried an experiment and the results weren’t good.
    During my lifetime we threw away flashlights about every 6 months because the batteries leaked now we trust batteries to power our computers and cell phones. We thought 13 miles per gallon was normal for a car and now we consider such a vehicle crude and clumsy and we have Priuses that get 50 miles per gallon.
    Scientists, engineers, and back yard mechanics keep plugging away and solve problems. When the Saudi royal family is overthrown we will be happy for the experiments, efforts, and problem solving of our scientists, engineers, and back yard mechanics.

  • avatar

    I think science is pretty clear on that BEV are better for the most part than hydrogen cars. Starting at conversion efficiency to the fact that electricity already exists everywhere (minus the correct charger). If I make hydrogen from electricity, I only get 20% or so out (unlike a battery, where i get 95% after charging). And people always forget energy to compress hydrogen. those people should google for compressibility and will see that hydrogen is very difficult to compress (and it leaks like a siff, it is the smallest molecule…fill a tank and after a month it will be empty). and if hydrogen is made of natural gas, why not just use natural gas in an IC? This already is done on large scale and overall sure not less efficient than going via fuel cell.
    Regardless, any car or fuel that still needs a support fleet is NOT usable at this point. You can piss and moan about BEVs. At lest they are able to drive around without a diesel-powered support fleet. Sure, a Nissan Leaf still has shortcoming from range to cost, but I can buy one at reasonable price and use it for shorter drives WITHOUT a support fleet.

    For the people who compare energy density: you need to consider that from one Btu or Wh of electricity you get 90% mechanical energy (assuming 90% E-motor efficiency). From the same Btu of gasoline, you only get 25%, at full load. Worse at partial load,which is the most case.

    • 0 avatar

      “For the people who compare energy density: you need to consider that from one Btu or Wh of electricity you get 90% mechanical energy (assuming 90% E-motor efficiency). From the same Btu of gasoline, you only get 25%, at full load. Worse at partial load,which is the most case.”

      That’s great, an electric motor is perhaps 3 or 4 times more energy efficient than a petrol one. Petrol has 15 times the energy density of a Lithium ion battery which is why a BEV has such a shitty range.

      No support fleet? What a load of bollocks, an army of roadside assistance vans will be needed to haul stranded electric cars that have run out of juice if the whole thing kicks off.

  • avatar

    I have read the AMS article and I hereby certify that Ed faithfully relayed its essence.
    The article dishes it out equally against East and West. Another car was piloted by Chinese journos. They also ran out of – gas.
    AMS: “But if you can’t understand the navigation system, and if you make the wrong turn at the first exit from the B27, you have forfeited any rights to a leading role in the F-Cell World Drive. Especially when the system ‘Tripy’ – a custom design for the fuel cell world trip – even offers Chinese symbols.”
    So there. The Americans are lead footed and calculate in quarterpounders. The Chinese are too stupid to read a screen.

  • avatar

    “And with EVs poised to both dominate the short-term green-car game and inevitably disappoint consumers”

    I’m yet to meet a disappointed EV owner. But ofcource you guys own the “Truth”, just like Fox owns “Fair & Balanced”.

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