After many years of research, government programs, and commercial development, two main candidates have emerged to replace the internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle in order to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) and Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicles (HFCVs)i . BEVs and HFCVs have zero tail-pipe emissions and could enable deep cuts in transport sector emissions by using electricity or hydrogen that is derived from low emission sources.
In the context of a global GHG emission reduction strategy, BEVs, by themselves, could provide sufficient emission benefits to achieve global climate targets if the widespread consumer acceptance of BEVs could be assumed. However, BEVs do not provide the range and refueling experience of an ICE, bringing into question whether they can achieve widespread acceptance in the private light-duty vehicle market. In addition, battery-electric technology is less applicable to medium and heavy-duty trucks. Consequently, another low-emission vehicle technology may be needed that provides the same consumer experience as the ICE vehicle and has broader applicability to heavier-duty vehicles. Current hydrogen fuel cell automobiles pass the “just like what I am used to” test while the current BEV does not. Also, hydrogen fuel cell technology is broadly applicable to heavy-duty vehicles. Nonetheless, BEV commercial uptake far exceeds HFCV sales because HFCVs are relative latecomers, they are currently expensive and, most of all, they rely on refueling infrastructure that is not available except in limited demonstration markets.
Technological and commercial progress will change the picture for HFCVs and BEVs as each type gains a larger share of the motor vehicle market. Government programs could bring about widespread hydrogen refueling infrastructure and HFCV costs will decline by a significant degree with lower fuel cell stack costs. Nonetheless, it will be 2025 or 2030 before hydrogen refueling infrastructure is widely available. Until then, BEVs and HFCVs will not be static products as they will undergo technological progress. While HFCVs will improve, so will BEVs, with increased vehicle range, less costly batteries and, perhaps, shorter recharging times. As a result, the relative consumer characteristics of BEVs and HFCVs may be significantly different than what they are today. We do not know what the competitive comparison of HFCVs vs. BEVs would be in the future although it does seem unlikely that BEVs could ever be recharged as quickly as liquid or gaseous powered vehicles can be refueled.
The current momentum to commercialize HFCVs reflects considerable technology development to date. HFCVs have clocked more than 20 million kilometers under real-world conditions, using Polymer Electrolyte Membrane Fuel Cell (PEMFC). The fuel cell costs have been cut by 80% since 2002, while achieving a four-fold increase in durability to over 120.000 miles. These developments paved the way for the automotive companies (OEMs) to sell and lease HFCVs today. The global HFCV car stock reached 11,200 units in 2018.
Road freight accounts for 75% of all freight transport CO2 emissions. Due to more favorable energy density and specific power characteristics of hydrogen fuel cell systems compared to battery-electric systems, fuel cells are better suited for heavyduty vehicles. Consequently, HFCVs are under development to serve in the heavy-duty vehicle market. Besides medium and heavy duty trucks, hydrogen technology can be applied to trains, ferry boats, marine vessels, and various niche markets.
Government support has been a necessary factor to achieve the uptake of both BEV and HFCV technologies. These efforts include R&D, purchase incentives and development of refueling or recharging infrastructure. While HFCV commercialization that started in 2014ii is well behind that for BEVs, it is now following the same path aided by significant government support in several motor vehicle markets. OEM HFCVs are readily available, albeit at high cost. Providing sufficient hydrogen refueling infrastructure is the main challenge for government demonstration programs.