Audi Relaunches Hydrogen Program; Industry's Battery Woes Intensify

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
audi relaunches hydrogen program industrys battery woes intensify

While electric vehicles have improved by every metric, sourcing the raw materials necessary for their production hasn’t gotten any easier. In fact, with more mobile devices and EVs on the market than ever before, automotive batteries are becoming harder to procure with any reliability. Volkswagen Group, which has been on a tear to promote electrification following its diesel emissions crisis, knows this better than anyone.

Audi’s all-electric E-Tron SUV experienced several delays after VW Group encountered trouble in sourcing batteries at a reasonable price. As the company continues endorsing EVs as an important part of its future, its rhetoric is beginning to soften — with the company now taking another look at hydrogen fuel cell technology.

According to Autocar, the German automaker plans to reestablish its H-Tron program to help offset any EV-related stalls and help Volkswagen AG establish a useful hydrogen-powered platform.

“We really want to speed it up,” Audi chairman Bram Schot told the outlet. “We are going to put more priority into hydrogen fuel cells – more money, more capacity of people and more confidence.”

Audi confirmed the reveal of a new, sixth-generation hydrogen fuel cell prototype later this year, with Schot adding that a limited-volume pilot production Audi FCEV could be offered to customers as part of a leasing program by 2021. While we’re often suspect of vehicles automakers refuse to sell via traditional channels, fuel cell vehicles don’t make a lot of sense to own – they’re only useful in the few locales with a hydrogen fueling network, and most garages couldn’t possibly service them.

This also makes it more difficult to take FCEVs seriously as an alternative to traditional internal combustion or battery powered vehicles.

Earlier this month, Tesla’s global supply manager, Sarah Maryssael, told a conference of mining executives and lawmakers that the company expects to see global supply shortages of the materials needed to produce batteries for electric cars. Meanwhile, battery producers are battling it out over intellectual property right, while some automakers bemoan the amount of cash they’ve already devoted to EV development. A troubled Jaguar Land Rover recently cited it as one of its biggest financial issues. Hoping to share development costs, other manufacturers are teaming up.

From Autocar:

A timescale for volume production of Audi FCEV models has yet to be decided, but Schot is confident this could occur during the second half of the next decade. The new fuel cell technology is developed from a cross-licensing agreement with Hyundai, which already sells the Nexo SUV. The two car makers announced they were joining forces on FCEV development in June last year.

At the 2016 unveiling of the h-tron fuel cell concept, Audi claimed a range of up to 600km (373 miles). Crucially, it also promised a refuelling time of just four minutes.

The decision to push ahead with fuel cell development comes in the middle of a broader £12 billion offensive in which Audi will launch up to 12 pure-electric battery-driven models by 2025.

Having driven the Nexo, this author can say its powertrain is serviceable, but nowhere near awe-inspiring. Its biggest issue remains the limited range and availability created by its dependance on scarce California hydrogen fueling stations. It doesn’t work anywhere else in North America because it can’t. Presumably, all of this will be equally true for Audi’s FCEV. Still, Schot worries that material shortages and high costs for EVs may leave the company with few alternatives.

“If this modality is here to stay, then you have to try to find the most effective and efficient way to drive electric,” he said. “And then you come to hydrogen fuel cells.”

Though hydrogen-powered cars are technically electric, some environmentalists claim they’re less eco-friendly than battery-only vehicles. Much of this relates to how the gas is stored and shipped; creating hydrogen is also expensive and most commercially available sources burn quite a bit of natural gas just to procure it. However, as with battery tech, a “major breakthrough” is always, seemingly, just around the corner.

Audi’s sixth-generation hydrogen fuel cell prototype is said to include a plug-in option for those times when hydrogen is in short supply (i.e. all of the time).

It looks as if automakers are having a hard time coping with ever-increasing emission quotas and need to slot vehicles into their lineups that look good on an environmental spreadsheet — regardless of how much they cost or how many people actually buy them. EVs aren’t quite ready for the unwashed masses and supply chain problems aren’t likely to help. With this in mind, OEMs are keen to put their greenest face forward while acknowledging a lot of unanswered questions still exist around “future mobility.”

“If you look at electrification, it means more expensive cars, but also we need to invest in petrol and diesel engines in the next few years, which will also increase prices so mobility in general will be more expensive,” Schot said in an earlier interview with Autocar. ” The question is: are people going to settle for different kinds of cars, are people going to settle for different kinds of brands, are people going to settle for the same car but a different engine? What does it mean for sharing? I don’t know.”

[Image: Volkswagen Group]

Join the conversation
2 of 31 comments
  • Watersketch Watersketch on May 07, 2019

    There is a compelling case for fuel cells for commercial trucks and buses which expect to be back at a depot nightly where they could be refueled. If battery powered, the charging infrastructure needed for larger vehicles is substantially more expensive than for passenger vehicles.

  • Stuki Stuki on May 07, 2019

    H2 fuel cells are, at least conceptually, viable. Battery electrics is much less certain in that regard. Far and away the simplest way to electrify cars, is to do what has worked forever, for similar high draw household appliances: Provide an outlet they can draw power from, on an as needed basis. While hardly easy, making an electric outlet movable, is one heck of a lot easier than building an H2 infrastructure, at least in fairly stable societies where the time between everything being blown to pieces is longer than a week or so.

  • Jeff S Some of us don't care either way we are not into this type of car. Most of these will be stored in garages waiting for their value to go up. As someone above noted this is an old body style which is retro 70s Challenger which after researching it came out in the 2008 MY which means a long run for a model that is in its 16th year. I have always liked these but if I bought one I would not spend this kind of money on one probably get the V-6 version and use it as a family car but then I am not into drag racing or muscle cars. For the type of car it is it has a decent rear seat and not too bad of a trunk. Most of us are not going to spend 100k for any vehicle at least currently so its not something most of us will buy and stick in a garage waiting for its value to increase. I am glad that these editions came out for those who can afford them and it keeps a little more color into what has become a very dull vehicle market but then with age I pick the dull appliance like reliable vehicle because that's what I need. Impressive car but not for me.
  • Jonathan The Germans. So organized they can appear disorganized. I agree with some others, classic names like Thunderbird, Imperial, Grand Prix, Ambassador etc. just have more appeal.
  • Bobbysirhan A friend had one when they first came out. He was CFO of some green California company and could charge the Volt at work. At home, the PHEV gave him an excuse to make his wife park her nicer car outdoors while the Volt get their condo's one-car garage. He liked the Volt, and he spent very little on energy during the 'first one's free!' era of EV ownership. Of course, the green company went bust soon after, and he wound up with a job that involved far more driving and ultimately the need for a more substantial car. I drove the Volt once after his wife had made a return trip to Los Angeles, depleting the battery. I don't know what a first gen Volt drives like with a charged battery, but it was really gutless with two adults, a yellow lab, and a dead battery. My other memory of it was that it had a really cramped back seat for a car that was about as large as a Civic. My friend who bought it liked it though, and that's not always been the case for GM vehicles.
  • MrIcky I think the Shakedown is more my speed of the last call editions- but this is impressive.
  • Dukeisduke I tried watching the live reveal last night, but after 15 minutes of jawing by MT+ personalities (and yes, I like Chris Jacobs and Alex Taylor), I turned it off.