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EDITORIAL
Future is electric, but not quite as envisaged today by autoindustry

AID Newsletter Editorial 1320 from Peter Schmidt - November 01st 2013


Hyundai Fuel Cell Vehicles Frankfurt IAA 2013
Hyundai fuel-cell vehicles at this year's Frankfurt Motor Show

Open quote signAll autoindustry visionaries have reasonably clear views of the future, but they probably can't exactly agree on how to get there and when that future is likely to turn into reality. Take the future of the electric car. Few, if any serious thinkers in this highly complex business will disagree with the notion that for electric car propulsion the future looks bright.

Apart from forever lingering concerns about sky-high future fuel prices and future supply, the certainty of forever tightening laws on exhaust emissions, and tougher and tougher fleet average fuel economy targets, chances are that tomorrow’s cars simply need to address these concerns. 

There is no alternative. At the same time, governments the world over have been left with precious little option but to implement across the board measures for a greener future, while dealing with an unstoppable trend towards more and more urbanisation. In tightly populated and energy-poor Europe for one, renewable low-carbon energy is the latest buzz phrase. 

The ultimate goal? 

As much renewable green energy as possible, say by way of solar, wind, wave or hydro-power. 

Ultimately, if not in the short term, at an affordable price for consumers. 
Germany shows the way. 

Back in 2011 the decision was taken to switch off eight domestic nuclear power stations. 

Its undertaking to phase out nuclear energy means that eventually renewable energy from a host of sources is expected to fill the void. 

Germany’s ‘Energiewende’ (switch to alternative energy) means principally a progressive switch to renewable energy, chiefly wind and solar energy. 

Electricity generated from renewable power in Germany rose from 6.3 per cent in 2000 to around 23 per cent in 2012. 

If current plans are fully adhered to, that’s expected to increase to 35 per cent by 2020 and 80 per cent by 2050. Experts in the field believe that this is indeed feasible and crucially, affordable for both industry and consumers. 

However, since time immemorial, there’s one all too obvious problem: Energy storage 

In Germany’s case the question is what to do with the surplus energy produced by these mushrooming wind turbines on a windy winter’s day. 

Or for that matter the excess power generated during a long and sunny summer by the millions and millions of solar panels packed on the roofs’ of houses, vast factory roofs or by huge solar fields. As it turns out, on an annualised summer/winter basis, the production of wind and solar power complement each other.

Admittedly broad brush, with energy storage foremost on the minds of green energy visionaries, the excess renewable electricity generated can be harnessed for the fully automated production of hydrogen. 

Put simply, that’s the transformation of water into hydrogen by way of commercial water electrolysis. Given the assumed cost-effective and commercial production of hydrogen also paves the way for the eventual commercialisation of fuel-cell powered electric cars. 

If the technology can eventually be mastered in terms of cost, quality, reliability and perhaps most crucial, with cars that are affordable to the public at large, today’s conventional battery powered cars could be destined to go the same way as the dinosaurs.

But for the foreseeable future, is the affordable fuel-cell powered electric car a mere pipedream or reality? 

Can it be done? 

No lesser carmaker than Toyota believes it can and will be done. 

Putting its money where its mouth is, Toyota only recently underlined its commitment to soon develop and market an affordable fuel-cell powered four-door saloon model for production, with no compromise in interior space and a cruising range of more than 300 miles. 

The company that pioneered today’s hybrid cars to perfection, and sells these by the bucketful to mainly domestic Japanese and American consumers, says it has overcome some of the historic barriers to developing a marketable and affordable fuel-cell vehicle. 

Sounds familiar? 

Similar wording accompanied the launch of the initially smiled-over first generation Prius back in 1997 

The rest, it seems is history. Toyota’s hybrid track record and determination to develop an affordable four-door saloon with hybrid fuel-cell drive, is almost guaranteed to send shivers down the backs of rivals who like BMW have invested train-loads of money in the development of comparatively crude battery powered electric cars.

Toyota is on course to launch its first hydrogen fuel cell vehicle in 2015 and expects its fuel-cell fuelled electric cars to reach full mass-market commercialisation during the 2020s. 

It conceivably means the premature death of a pure battery-fuelled electric car future even before it began.
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