Hydrogen cars: what are they and should I buy one?

Hydrogen cars: what are they and should I buy one?
With electric cars now increasingly entering the mainstream, the next big automotive tech trend on the horizon is hydrogen cars.

Hydrogen cars, or, hydrogen fuel cell cars - as they are correctly known, were first introduced by Toyota in 2014 and have kept a pretty low profile since then.

Here we take a closer look, answering the questions: what exactly is a hydrogen car, how is the technology progressing, should you buy one and what ones are available to buy now.

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What is a hydrogen car?

Hydrogen cars

A hydrogen car is a car that is solely powered by hydrogen which is injected into its fuel tank at hydrogen refilling stations, much like how you fill a conventional car with petrol or diesel.

They take energy from hydrogen and pass it through a fuel cell (hence the extended name) to be converted into electrical energy with heat and water created as byproducts.

The heat and water is released into the environment (instead of CO2 or NOx emissions), while the electrical energy is used to drive an electric motor. It literally means the only tailpipe emissions are pure water.

A hydrogen fuel cell car can be one that the manufacturer has designed from the start as a fuel cell car, or one that they have converted based on an existing standard model to run from hydrogen.

Currently there are only three types of hydrogen cars available in the UK, these are the Toyota Mirai, Honda FCV Clarity and Hyundai ix35.

How and where do you fill up a hydrogen car?

hydrogen car

These vehicles have a hydrogen fuel tank that can be filled with pressurised hydrogen in around five minutes. 

They are filled from hydrogen filling stations, similar to petrol stations, in various locations around the country, the difference, however, between petrol and hydrogen stations is that there are currently only 13 hydrogen filling stations open at the time of writing. 

Furthermore, six of those are within London’s M25 orbital motorway, with only four in operation north of London.

There are, however, more planned and the government is set to invest in further in the infrastructure of the technology.

Click here for an interactive map of the country's hydrogen filling stations

Current price for filling up is between £10 - £15 per kilo so based on a Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, it would cost between £50 to £75 to refuel.

READ MORE: Best electric cars 2017: available now and coming soon

What are the pros and cons of buying a hydrogen car?

Pros

  • Cheaper tax

    Like electric and plug-in hybrids, hydrogen fuel cell cars are classed as ‘ultra low emission vehicles’ (ULEVs) and benefit from the same tax advantage as other ULEVs.

    As they emit no CO2, owners won’t have to pay any vehicle excise duty (VED, commonly known as road tax) – even under the new tax regulations that were introduced in April 2017. That’s aside from a £310 annual supplement for cars over £40,000 for the first five years.

  • Congestion charges

    They’ll also be exempt from the congestion charge, which could save motorists £11.50 a day if they travel into Central London. It’s also worth noting that the congestion charge and other similar charges will most likely be rolled out in other cities over the coming years.

  • Environment

    As well as the economic benefits, drivers of hydrogen-powered cars will be doing their bit for the environment, as there are no harmful tailpipe emissions.

    Although hydrogen is often produced using fossil fuels, it generally produces fewer harmful emissions than burning petrol or diesel and it can be made using renewable electricity via electrolysis.

  • Range

    While finding somewhere to fill up might be an issue today, most hydrogen cars are capable of covering 300 miles from a tank, so won’t suffer the same ‘range anxiety’ many electric car drivers suffer from.

Cons

  • Filling up

    Currently, hydrogen is difficult to find, with just 13 hydrogen filling stations open at the time of writing.

    Six of those are within London’s M25 orbital motorway – perfect if you do most of your miles within the city, but not so great if you live or travel further afield.

    More are planned and the government has created a new £23 million fund to boost the take-up of hydrogen vehicles and improve the infrastructure that supports them, so it might not necessarily always be a problem, but is well worth taking into consideration as it currently stands.

  • Running costs

    It’s also more expensive than petrol or diesel.

    Sold by the kilogram, with current prices around £10 - £15 per kilo, it’ll cost between £50 - £75 to refuel a Toyota Mirai hydrogen fuel cell vehicle.

    With a real-life range of around 300 miles, that’s more expensive than running even a thirsty petrol model.

    To combat this, Toyota is offering a £750/month contract hire scheme which includes maintenance, tyres – and hydrogen fuel.

  • Purchase cost

    If you want to buy a hydrogen car outright, it’ll cost considerably more than an equivalent petrol or diesel model, with prices starting at around £50,000.

    They’re also produced in very small numbers, meaning you might be waiting for a while after placing your order.

    Even at that price, car makers are believed to currently be losing money on every hydrogen car they sell.

  • Fuel tanks

    Finally, hydrogen has to be compressed to fit into fuel tanks, so those tanks have to be extremely strong – which costs money and adds weight.

    Some are also concerned about the flammability of hydrogen. It’s highly combustible, although so is petrol – and most of us don’t worry about driving around with an arguably less well-protected tank full of petrol underneath our car.

Will the technology improve and become more popular?

We’ve established the biggest issue with hydrogen power is the lack of infrastructure, but if no one buys hydrogen-powered cars, that’s not going to change anytime soon.

It’s a chicken and egg scenario – similar to electric cars, but unlike electric cars, dedicated refuelling stations are needed and they’re more expensive than fitting a fast-charger on your driveway.

Hydrogen filling stations are expensive to build, but the UK government and the EU is backing a drive to increase the number available, with an aim to have 65 open to the public across the UK by 2020.

Like the development of electric cars, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles will get more advanced over time, with the technology getting cheaper as the range from fill-ups increases.

This will make fuel cell cars more appealing to more people, and will help them become more widespread.

READ MORE: What is a hybrid car and should I buy one?

What are the best hydrogen cars available now?

Seeing as we've already mentioned there are only currently three avaiable, it makes sense to start with them...

The Toyota Mirai

Hydrogen cars

We’ve mentioned the Toyota Mirai a few times, because this is the one expected to give hydrogen a head-start in a similar way the Prius did with hybrid vehicles.

With a price of £66,000 (before the Government’s £4,500 ultra-low emission grant), you’ll have to be a keen early-adopter to buy a new Mirai outright, although Toyota’s £750 contract hire scheme (including fuel and maintenance costs) will make it more tempting for businesses.

The Hyundai ix35 FCEV

The Hyundai ix35 FCEV

Unlike the Toyota Mirai, which has been designed from the ground up as a hydrogen car, Hyundai’s attempt at a fuel cell vehicle is based on its existing ix35 SUV.

The ix35 has an official range of 369 miles and costs £53,105. Its electric motor produces 135hp, giving it a 0-62mph time of 12.5 seconds, and a top speed of 99mph.

Honda FCX Clarity/FCV Clarity 

Honda FCV Clarity

Honda is expected to launch its FCV Clarity in the UK in limited numbers later this year.

A successor to the FCX Clarity, the Japanese car firm says the FCV will provide a range of around 300 miles and can be refuelled in around five minutes.

Prices are yet to be confirmed, but it’s likely to be around £60,000 in a bid to take on the Toyota Mirai.

There are also oddities like the Riversimple Rasa.

Made by a small company in Wales, the Rasa is a prototype hydrogen car with a range of 300 miles from just 1.5kg of hydrogen, giving it the equivalent of around 250mpg.

Designed as an open source vehicle with the intention of helping other manufacturers produce fuel cell vehicles, the Rasa is a tiny two-seater with a top speed of 60mph.

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