Why fuel cells are driving the future where other inventions failed

- Amphibious vehicles and on-board record players never quite got motoring, but with no emissions and more places to fill up, fuel cell cars could be the next great leap for the auto industry.

The saying goes: “there’s no need to reinvent the wheel”, but there have been plenty of attempts to improve the cars we build around those wheels. Today, with drivers becoming ever more eco-conscious, the auto industry continues to focus efforts on alternative sources to power our vehicles. Hydrogen-powered fuel cell cars could be the answer to a more sustainable way of travelling because they combine performance with zero emissions.

Fuel cell technology converts hydrogen and oxygen into water and in the process, produces electricity. Hyundai’s ix35 Fuel Cell is the world's first mass-produced and commercially available hydrogen fuel cell electric car. There are about 400 of these vehicles driving on European roads, with the numbers set to grow in the coming years.

In the future, urban pollution charges, tougher emissions laws, and reductions in the price of hydrogen cars and fuel are likely to make zero-emission electric cars even more attractive to new buyers.

The only emissions from the tailpipe of the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell during driving are water vapour.

Fuel cell cars will be fastest growing segment of the auto market

According to a report by Information Trends entitled Global Market for Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles, more than 20 million hydrogen fuel cell cars will be sold worldwide by 2032, generating over €1.2 trillion in revenue for the auto industry. The report also predicts that fuel cell cars will be the fastest growing segment of the auto market by 2050.

The infrastructure is not quite there yet, but that’s going to change in Europe. For example, in Germany, there are currently just 24 hydrogen refuelling stations, but there are plans for 400 to be built by 2023. The UK aims to have 65 filling stations by 2020. London opened its first station in May 2016 with four more earmarked for the English capital.

Companies and governing authorities are partnering to roll out new hydrogen fuel cell initiatives throughout Europe. There is a recognition for the need to develop a network of filling stations which meet the jointly-defined technical standards for filling ports and the actual fuelling process itself.

Along with manufacturing the world's first mass-produced fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV), Hyundai is also contributing to hydrogen fuel cell projects around the continent. Hyundai Motor is the first car manufacturer to open a public hydrogen station at its European headquarters in Offenbach, Germany. The technology was developed by Hyundai’s partner Air Liquide and the project is part of the Clean Energy Partnership (CEP) which sees cooperation between government and industry in the area of hydrogen-powered mobility.

A water-going car in Stuttgart, Germany, via Wikicommons

Amphibious cars

Useful for James Bond and the military, but not so practical for the everyday driver. Amphibious vehicle designs really began to emerge in the 1920s and despite the lack of large-scale uptake, they haven’t gone away. In 2010, American company Watercar set a world speed record for an amphibious vehicle with its Python model and it has also launched a commercial vehicle. However, water-going vehicles haven’t managed to make waves in the industry just yet.

On the other hand, by mass-producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, the cars are instantly available to a much wider audience. In addition, the roll out of the supporting infrastructure such as filling stations demonstrates that both governments and manufacturers are embracing the technology.

The Sinclair C5

An earlier venture into the world of electric cars, the Sinclair C5 was a small one-person three-wheeled vehicle. The battery-powered tricycle was unveiled in 1985 by computer magnate Clive Sinclair but its short range, low speed of 24km/h, and the fact that it was open to the elements meant sales never took off.

By comparison, an FCEV like the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell can travel 594 kilometres on a full tank and refuelling takes just 3-5 minutes. The car has already set a new speed record of 170 km/h on public roads in Europe.

Automatic seatbelts

Between the 1970s and 1990s, car manufacturers, particularly in the United States, experimented with automatic seat belts where a combination of motor and manual would secure the driver and passenger in their seats. When driver-side airbags began to become compulsory, the automatic seat belt had had its day.

Today, the ix35 boasts all the features of a modern-day SUV and uses the latest safety and assist systems.

Built-in record players

The ever-changing world of in-car audio has come a long way. Whereas today cars like the Hyundai i30 feature Android Auto and Apple CarPlay to sync your smartphone tunes with your on-board console, there was a time when cars tried to include vinyl record players. Reflecting the times, in the 1950s and 60s, spinning vinyls under the dashboard was the way of bringing your own music on a road trip. Designer Peter Goldmark developed the Highway Hi-Fi system of proprietary players and seven-inch phonograph records designed for use in cars. Keeping the needle in place while driving over different terrain seemed an obvious hazard. In fact, that wasn’t a major issue to begin with. Instead the pressure required to keep the needle steady would wear down the records, while there was a problem with songs being played too quickly. The vinyls would soon give way to the next audio invention, the eight-track tape deck.

Hyundai has opened a hydrogen refueling station at its European headquarters in Offenbach, Germany

With the increasing need for low emission cars, and a growing fuelling infrastructure, it’s clear that fuel cell technology is well placed to lead the charge for the future of clean driving.

Consumption Data

ix35 Fuel Cell

Electric engine / Fuel Cell (100 kW (136 PS)): Fuel efficiency combined: 0.95 kg/100 km; urban: 0.89 kg/100 km; extra-urban: 0.99 kg/100 km; CO2 emissions combined: 0 g/km