By on May 6, 2019

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]

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31 Comments on “Audi Relaunches Hydrogen Program; Industry’s Battery Woes Intensify...”

  • avatar

    The problem must be that using lithium in batteries makes inefficient use of a difficult and problematic resource. Maybe the lithium could be processed to make dilithium crystals.

  • avatar

    “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.

    Progressives are parasitic fascists. They’re always looking for ways to make food, education, real estate, and freedom more expensive while directing the extra rent to their cronies.

    • 0 avatar

      You could also include “capitalists”. I have never heard “progressives” use the word “monetize”.

      I feel zero kinship with the “progressive” faction and will spare the readers my opinion. Being an investor I am also a capitalist; the returns on those investments pay the bills here. With that said, without some regulation to strike a balance between the involved parties that would not be possible. There are few angels when it comes to the quest to acquire money.

      • 0 avatar

        Why would progressives reveal what evil and greedy sloths they are?

        The only viable regulation is capitalist consumers banding together to protect their personal, consumer etc. rights. Not the cancer of leeching bureacratic cancer which never ever stops looking for more excuses to increase costs and their own income/luxury/career paths.

    • 0 avatar

      Progressives: “Oil is going to end in just a few years!”
      Reality: oil doesn’t end

      This loop repeats infinitely.

      Progressives: “It’s horrible how you pump oil from the ground!”
      Reality: “You wrote on a machine made with oil, wearing oil, eating from a container made with oil, etc. etc..”

      Reality: “There isn’t enough lithium for everyone to drive around in 2-ton massive vehicles running on batteries and mining it is not good for the environment!”
      Progressives: “No no, we can mine as much as we want forever!”

      I knew that recurring idiotic, childish Hollywood movies’ lesson about “if you just believe in it enough your dreams will come true” repeating for decades was going to do a lot of damage.

      Morons believe in easy solutions and mob mentality to bully everyone into believing those easy solutions.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Hydrogen is a bad joke for many, many reasons. A big one is that you can’t rely on local governments to simply pay for million-dollar refueling stations, and no mfr seems willing to foot the bill like Tesla has done with their Supercharger network.

    Tesla’s Gigafactory and the Supercharger network are the real genius of Tesla (in addition to producing serious EVs that aren’t Citicar toys).

    All the armchair experts figured that “real automakers” like Volkswagen Group, JLR, Hyundai, BMW, GM, Ford, and Toyota could just launch EVs on a whim and crush Tesla. Not so easy to do, it turns out.

    • 0 avatar

      If Tesla was making a profit doing this stuff, I’d say you are correct. Right now they continue to burn cash at a prodigious rate, with reports the GigaNevada scraps a half million cells a day. But as long as Wall Street can provide financing, the show will go on.

      • 0 avatar

        You’re right: Tesla is about as profitable as a 5-year-old’s lemonade stand.

        • 0 avatar

          Along with Uber, Lyft, Amazon for its first several years…what’s your point?

          • 0 avatar

            That destroying capital isn’t a long term business plan. As the above motley crew demonstrates, as long as you have a Fed robbing others left and right via debasement, in order to hand the loot to capital destroyers living off of selling hype and promises, one can always pretend that dumb stuff somehow isn’t. But, like communism, eventually you run out of others’ accumulated value add to steal, and with it, the ability to pretend.

    • 0 avatar

      They already have.

      I’m already on my second electrified vehicle, and neither was a Tesla. I’ve also never charged with a Tesla Supercharger, but have used about a hundred different charging stations (that’s not surprising since Tesla doesn’t have the largest charging network).

      I’ve got my popcorn out and am watching Tesla go down.

    • 0 avatar

      Using the word “genius” and “Tesla” in the same sentence makes no sense, because Tesla is an incompetent automaker which is soon going to end up bankrupt. And the so-called “Supercharger network” is a joke, because charging times are EXTREMELY long – it’s hard to believe, but even in 2019 it’s not possible to fully charge a Tesla in the time it takes to fill an empty fuel tank! That must constitute a huge embarrassment for Tesla, luckily there are lots of brainwashed fanbois making up excuses for it (and many of them are on TTAC).

    • 0 avatar

      I absolutely agree with you about what Tesla has done to the idea of EVs taking over from ICEVs – but, in truth, for most of the world, your city-car ‘joke’ is the EV that will really be the game-changer in terms of this crucially important transition.

      Meanwhile, HFCs are a complete farce in this context for a host of reasons the main one being their appalling efficiency – 40% at very best (compared to over 90% for a *real* EV, ie a vehicle without an exhaust pipe) – and yet Audi (and all the other HFC-worshipers) seem to think this is just fine!

  • avatar

    “Audi claimed a range of up to 600km (373 miles). Crucially, it also promised a refuelling time of just four minutes.”

    Interesting. My 12 year old Civic also has a similar range and refueling time. And that refueling infrastructure is in place everywhere today.

    The ability to charge at home is the most compelling reason I would go full electric. This checks a box to meet mandates for ZEVs but it doesn’t have the appeal (to me) that a BEV does.

  • avatar

    ” 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.”

    Natural gas isn’t burned to manufacture hydrogen. What you do is heat it to 750C (a nice bright cherry red for steel), add in steam in the presence of a platinum and palladium catalyst and you then get H2 and CO.

    Depending on the type of fuel cell, both of those can be fuels, but for the most common auto type cells (i.e the ones that run at 60C, not 700C) the CO is a poison, so it has to be stripped out and is usually burned to make CO2, as CO is a poison to people.

    It’s not very efficient to throw away half your fuel before you even get it to a car, but that’s what the process demands.

  • avatar

    “its rhetoric is beginning to soften”

    I have a feeling we are going to be seeing a whole lot of that over the next 5 years.

  • avatar

    So much for those arrogant German Tesla killers! They cannot even procure batteries for their non-existing electric cars!

    BTW Lithium is produced during nuclear fusion inside stars. So that is the one way to supply it.

  • avatar

    Over the past five years or so, the Chinese made sure they had plenty of supply contracts for the raw materials for lithium batteries. They already had the best reserves of rare earth minerals for decent permanent magnets for electric motors. Day after day in the business press, this Chinese buying up spree was noted, but the average capitalist took not the slightest notice, nose buried in quarterly reports. China said outright they wanted to be THE world supplier of batteries, now looks like they might well turn out to be.

    Now the chickens have come home to roost and bewildered captains of the vehicle industry are squawking about lack of batteries. So, they reason using gigantic IQs, let’s leap aboard the distinctly third rate solution of using hydrogen fuel cells and waste some more money.

    Then here’s an article on hydrogen fuel cell cars and the words Toyota Mirai aren’t even mentioned ONCE. Toyota’s in the lead on these hydrogen vehicles, even sells the things in the US, but your average motoring scribe, bereft of memory or understanding cannot even pull that basic note out of memory.

    Audi suddenly thinks H2 because it’s desperate about batteries, and somehow it’s news all over again.

    • 0 avatar

      The Chinese have no progressive-style guilt about all the damage they leave behind in the lands they ravage for raw materials. And with no free press, there’s no environmental movement to slow down this China’s continued dominance in any field it directs its energies to. The 21st century is going to be an ugly one.

      • 0 avatar

        By contrast, tell me more about the oil industry’s leadership in environmentalism and human rights.

        So sick of this fake concern coming out of the woodwork only when the subject is EVs.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Due to population density in China, electric cars are really a requirement. The US could move along just fine continuing to improve the ICE.

  • avatar
    Art Vandelay

    Due to population density in China, electric cars are really a requirement. The US could move along just fine continuing to improve the ICE.

  • avatar

    With EVs the automakers are on the hook to find batteries at a reasonable price. With hydrogen the automakers can blame someone else for the lack of hydrogen fuel and infrastructure as in: “See Uncle Sam, we have made this wonderful hydrogen vehicle that is zero emissions and satisfies consumer range anxiety and can be refueled in only 4 minutes, but we have no hydrogen to put in the car. Please do something about it and we will put the world in hydrogen vehicles and we will all live happily ever after.”

  • avatar

    Hydrogen IS THE FUTURE!

    Everyone thinks I’m nuts for saying it, but I’m confident of it.

    Almost 20 years ago, I got my degree studying engineering with a focus on Hydrogen. I built my first Hydrogen ICE about the same time.

    I’m convinced the only reason we aren’t all driving around in hydrogen cars is: 1. too tough to tax therefore no incentive for the gov’t to do it. 2. too uncertain for the gas companies to run with it.

    I really don’t think the issue is “storage” like most people say. I’m also not as concerned with production as many people are. I work with some VC groups, and there are companies looking for (and receiving) funding who can right now extract hydrogen through membranes and whatnot and are working to scale it up.

    So I quietly believe Hydrogen is the future. Heck, even old cars can be converted to run off of hydrogen for a relatively low cost. We could be driving around in 1969 hydrogen mustangs if we wanted to.

    But I know most people don’t believe me, so I’ll leave my tinfoil hat on for another 20 years until I can finally say “I told you so!”

  • avatar
    Master Baiter

    The only advantage that EVs have is instant torque. For most people, this is simply a monkey trick that they can live without.

    • 0 avatar

      “The only advantage that EVs have is instant torque”

      No, there’s more to it than that. The instant response is really great, but there is also the smoothness, the quiet, and reduced maintenance. It’s also nice to be able to mostly fuel at home if it’s an option for you. I know someone that just had a bunch of sensor issues with their Prius’ ICE. It’s nice not to have to worry about that stuff. No transmission to deal with either. If it works for you, life with an EV can be pretty damned good.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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