/ Motoring

Improve electric cars or hydrogen will overtake

Man charging an electric car

Electric cars are the future. At least, that’s what manufacturers are leading us to believe with cars like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. But are there better options, like hydrogen, that should be explored more?

There have been two fundamental reasons for me to pose these questions this week.

Firstly, a report released by a US automotive industry research firm, J.D Power, and secondly an insightful email from Which? reader Allan Parsons.

What’s turning us off electric cars?

The report, Drive Green 2020: More hope than reality, highlighted three key issues the public has with electric vehicles (EVs):

  • 17% of those surveyed said they’d be interest in an electric car, but this plummeted to just 5% when they were told they’d have to pay a $15k premium for one.
  • Consumers were put off by higher ownership costs of electric cars, with EVs expected to depreciate faster.
  • Although they wanted to reduce their carbon footprint, helping save the environment carried a relatively low weight for consumers when buying a new car.

So money is a key factor in people’s decisions to buy electric. But the key aspect of electric cars which turns my nose up is the impractical range and charge figures the manufacturers appear to be promoting.

For example, the Nissan Leaf will do just 100 miles on a full charge. And although you can do a ‘fast charge’ in 15 minutes at an EV charge point, which will give you 80% capacity and ultimately another 80 miles, first you have to find one. If you want to fully charge the batteries, you have to have the car plugged into a mains socket for a full eight hours!

I’m not sure how happy I’d be about reducing my carbon footprint by buying a Leaf for the same price as a Lotus Elise, and then having to walk the final third of my 150-mile round trip to work every day because of the limited range.

Is hydrogen the future?

And it looks like I’m not the only one who is slightly sceptical about the immediate future of electric cars. Allan Parsons, a retired scientist and lifetime subscriber to Which?, also shared many of the concerns I’m having and wrote to Which? Convo about them.

He underlined the scientific and economic benefits of hydrogen as the prime future fuel, and this extract from his email summed up his argument most poignantly for me:

‘If you take into consideration that it is quite easy and cheap to convert all current petrol/diesel fuelled cars to directly burn hydrogen (in the same sort of way that they can be modified to burn LPG), it should be apparent that overall this is a much more carbon-neutral scenario. This is because it does not require the whole of the world’s current petrol/diesel car stock to be junked and replaced with brand new, very expensive, electric cars.’

But am I just being too narrow-minded about EVs? Maybe electric cars should be treated with completely different expectations to those we have from a lifetime of combustion engine vehicles? I guess I’d have more time to ponder these thoughts on the 50-mile walk home on my daily commute if I did buy a Leaf.

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For a basic shopping cart which is little more than an electric milk float of old, the present electric cars ‘might’ just about rank as usable, if horribly uneconomic. However, as noted the costs are not remotely acceptable and it is hard to see such vehicles as a real prospect. Hydrogen has several considerable advantages and one or two real drawbacks. The main draw back is the highly volatile nature of the gas which is, to say the least, very keen to burn. So far it is also unclear how much hydrogen could be stored in the car and thus how much range one could obtain.
Perhaps the greatest plus for hydrogen is the fact that it can be produced when it can be produced and stored for use when it is needed, thus decoupling generation from consumption and functioning somewhat like a ‘storage battery’. This could mean either the much derided and probably somewhat useless wind driven generators, or perhaps solar installations along, with many other possible or potential sources. However, while generating small amounts of power which could simply generate hydrogen from water is relatively easy, storing hydrogen by compression is not. So how much range could be pumped into a hydrogen car and at what cost?
Today I am likely to do almost no mileage, perhaps 10 miles, yesterday I did about 160 miles and much of the previous week has been somewhat like yesterday. I am retired but have considerable, but variable demands on my time. An electric car would be totally useless for me, currently a petrol car which achieves close to 60 miles per gallon is meeting the needs, though even with that mileage I have to visit the filling station far too often at the moment!
This brings up other possible issues with the hydrogen car, e.g.
1) How much of the gas would leak out while the demand was low? How would venting be safely handled?
2) What would the refuelling arrangements be? Local, e.g at home or at only refuelling points? If the latter then the idea of home generation is out of the question.
3) Would a fuel cell be a better prospect than a traditional 4 cycle engine?
4) Even if the obvious issues were easily addressed, how much range could be delivered for a hydrogen car and how will the ‘real world’ costs pan out?

pickle says:
5 November 2010

Hydrogen cars have been produced – their range is much the same as petrol powered cars. The element which gives the electric power is a fuel cell unit. The big problem is availability of hydrogen “pumps”, but no doubt this will be overcome in time. I think this is the way to go in future.
The short range of electric cars is the main snag – OK for city types but not for general use.
Which ever fuel is used there is the problem of generation with consequent carbon generation. Until the fuel can be made using recyclable principles we are stuck with carbon emissions.


When batteries can be produced – and produced at an affordable price and not be full of environmentally destructive components – which can be charged as quickly as a petrol or diesel car can be filled with fuel, then and only then will electric cars be viable for general use.

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Battery cars might e fine for quite a few people, a 100 mile range would suit me most of the time, but not if expensive batteries needed replacing every few years. Many years ago I was involved in testing NIFE cells and they seemed to last without loss of performance for years and I understand that they are far less fussy about treatment than lead acid. Could they be used for cars?

It is the continuing costs that seem important if electric cars are to become popular.

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Interesting point about NIFE cells – I also did some research on them – one advantage was their ability for very rapid charge and discharge cycles without damage – these would seem useful as e-car batteries – but they have never been used commercially in any motor vehicle as far as I know.

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Sorry to come back but what on earth is any one doing a 150mile daily commute, they should be discouraged.

Jeff says:
28 January 2016

What as in discouraged and forced to buy another home they may not be able to afford closer to their job? Or discouraged from applying for a job unless it’s closer to their home! Get real. It’s called freedom of choice – we don’t Iive in a communist state. Yet!

Phil says:
6 November 2010

Hydrogen cars are not carbon neutral.

Currently the most common method of producing hydrogen is to extract it from natural gas, the carbon being thrown away. It would be far more sensible, and more “green”, to simply run the car on the natural gas. Before hydrogen can become a carbon neutral fuel there needs to be a massive investment in alternative methods of production, a huge increase in renewable and nuclear electricity generating capacity which is going to take a generation or more to build. The way things are at the moment we won’t have enough electricity to meet our current needs, let alone the extra demands of millions of electric and hydrogen cars.

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Thanks for the comments guys, all really good stuff.

I agree that, although some might say electric cars will suit their needs, battery-powered vehicles with a 100-mile range just can’t be depended on in every day life. We’d have to change our means of thinking before travelling anywhere. Instead of thinking ‘that’s probably too far to drive’, we’ll have to think about how we’ll get back!

As most of the comments here suggest, the broader cost of ownership of an electric car seems to be far steeper than what we are accustom to. I recently had to replace an engine and gearbox in a Renault Scenic after 80,000 tough motoring miles. Considering the mileage and relatively low replacement costs, I had little to complain about. But if I was fronting up the money to replace batteries on a regular basis and at a higher cost, it’s fair to say I wouldn’t be as understanding.

Something that has cropped up recently in the news that relates to this conversation is TfL (Transport for London) receiving £5m of EU funding for its hydrogen bus project. This will mean route RV1, between Covent Garden and Tower Hill, will be a zero-emissions hydrogen bus route by the end of 2011.

Again, it’s a large investment cost. But at least hydrogen is dependable to cover the necessary miles.

Tom Rendell says:
5 December 2010

Hi Rob, if you purchased a Renault Scenic, it’s your problem when it broke down!
Why didn’t you get a more reliable car?
What exactly went wrong with it that needed BOTH the engine AND gearbox replacing?
Electric cars have very low servicing costs.
Personally I don’t have an electric car and I won’t be purchasing one for several years at the earliest, as they are currently borderline in terms of economic viability and I don’t have the spare cash to buy something for trend-setting purposes, however, I would actively ENCOURAGE others who can afford it to do so, it’s got to start somewhere – Chicken and Egg – no charging stations without EV’s and no EV’s without charging stations.
Electric cars / vehicles will not be for everyone at the outset, but I bet they will be absolutely fine for a large number of people right now!

Phil says:
9 November 2010

“This will mean route RV1, between Covent Garden and Tower Hill, will be a zero-emissions hydrogen bus route by the end of 2011.”

It’s only zero emissions at point of use which might benefit the health of anyone living nearby but won’t do anything to reduce CO2 emissions globally. Quite the reverse as a major by product of hydrogen production is CO2.

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As posted above the biggest issue with hydrogen powered vehicles is the production of the hydrogen itself, which is not particularly green. Then, with the electric vehicles you need to look at what is used to generate the electricity, currently most electricity is generated from the burning of, well, fossil fuels. All these initiatives are around reducing emissions in the streets but what about the emissions at energy generator end?

I would’ve thought range fatigue is the biggest factor influencing the purchase of e-cars. Manufacturers will of course tell us the range to be 100 miles but that would be in laboratory conditions. Who’s betting that their newly-purchased electric car will conk out before it’s got to the end of the street once they’ve factored in the heating, driving style and the dead body in the boot?

But the most ludicrous electric car is the one that still uses petrol/diesel to power the battery which is then used to power the car. What is the point of that?! (I’m sure there’s a logical explanation).

Tom Rendell says:
5 December 2010

Electric vehicles are ~90% efficient whereas petrol / diesel vehicles can only be ~40% efficient at best (thermodynamics) – that’s a BIG difference!

Where electricity is currently produced 100% by burning coal (not many places), it is fair to say that electric vehicles only produce a very marginal (if any) advantage in terms of emissions (they can save ~10% from regenerative braking, for example)
But that misses the point – in the medium term, there will be much more emission-free energy generation – it will come in parallel with EV’s – it is not necessary to wait for 100% renewable energy sources to be used before commencing the electrification of transport.

The electric car which uses petrol in order to charge the battery (Chevy Volt) is only really a ‘stepping stone’ technology to overcome ‘range anxiety’ – currently available infrastructure (petrol stations) can be used, as well as upcoming infrastructure (charging stations.)
But for most people ~70% of journeys will be made on pure electric power charged up from home – nice and cheap!

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It seems to me that with Hydrogen being the most abundant element in the universe, with there being vast sources of it here on Earth in the form of Water and with the direct burning of Hydrogen as a fuel being a completely recyclable, ‘green’ and carbon-free system, that it is quite clear that this will be the ultimate fuel of the future, not only for cars, but also for all our other energy needs.

So I would like to see governments here in the UK putting in massive investment to bringing this to a reality, sooner rather than later, when we have used up all sorts of other precious resources in pursuing dead-end solutions such as electric cars (e.g. the so-called ‘Rare Earth Elements’ which are already in short supply). They need to put money into research and development of new methods for the preparation of Hydrogen and start to set up the necessary infrastructure of hydrogen filling stations around the country. If the fuel was readily available (say if hydrogen pumps were established alongside each LPG pump), then many more people would have their internal combustion engines adapted to burn Hydrogen and this could start the ball rolling.

Current methods of manufacture of Hydrogen are certainly not completely carbon neutral, but they are no worse that using electricity to charge up batteries in electric cars. There are a number of potential, green routes out there for the production of Hydrogen from water (e.g. the splitting of water, employing a suitable catalyst, into Hydrogen and Oxygen using only light) and many of them have been shown to work, although not currently at a high enough efficiency to be economic. However, if there is one thing the history of science has taught us, it is that, once a principle has been shown to be practical, then, providing sufficient resources are applied to it, the efficiency will steadily rise until it is sufficient to use for the production of all the world’s energy needs.

I feel particularly in the current financial downturn, we here in the UK have a great opportunity to lead the world. We have a wealth of great scientists and technologists who, with the right backing, stand a better chance of coming up with the answers than most other countries (just look at the number of Nobel laureates we have – more per head of population than any other country in the world!). This could lead to the birth of new industries and we could be at the forefront !

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What have you guys made of the Source London news? Boris Johnson has promised 1,300 charging stations for electric cars by the end of 2013. Sounds good to me, but what about the rest of the UK?

Does this mean electric cars are only suitable in London? Is anyone aware of similar charging stations appearing in their region? I’ve certainly not heard anything in Lincolnshire.

Jeff says:
28 January 2016

Well that was pie in the sky. It’s now 2016 and there are 131 charging points in London and 1500 nationwide.

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I really don’t like the idea of Hydrogen cars – The chances of explosions seem far too likely – somehow I feel hydrogen gas is more volatile than petrol and far less safe than battery power . The last time we used hydrogen for transport resulted in disasters.

Hybrid cars could be the short term answer until there are enough electric charging stations around but even then the idea of waiting around for 20 mins for a recharge is not an answer to a commercial concern..

I feel the real answer is a quick change battery that contains enough energy for 300 miles. You drive into the fuel stop garage – drive into a slot – press a button – your existing battery is disconnected – press another the “new” recharged battery is connected and locked – drive away. It is certainly technically possible – but whether our fossil fuel based stations are willing to invest is another matter.as there is still vast amounts of fossil fuels still available.

I keep remembering the numerous electronic items I worked on Sixty years ago in our research laboratory that.have only just started to be used commercially now – The technology was there not the will to exploit it

Tom Rendell says:
5 December 2010

1) The Chevy Volt has a range extender (i.e. a petrol generator that gives a further 300 miles of range – until the next charge or fuel station) – it appears from the tone of your article as if you didn’t know this very basic fact!
2) You really are missing the big picture here! EV’s are here and now(ish) with the Leaf and Volt. That’s exciting! We’re not talking a few more years down the line, waiting for development of some new technology, it’s now! and it’s not too expensive! and the more people that buy it, the cheaper it will become! and the more that people use it, the more eco-friendly energy sources will be built – it’s got to start somewhere – mobile phones were rubbish 20 years ago and now nearly everyone has one!

harri says:
22 April 2011

If LPG is that straightforward why are car manufacturers not selling cars with facilities to use LPG? why does one have to go gas conversion which is expensive, negates the warranty and may even damage the vehicle engine….the LPG website is poor with neutral information so maybe Which should provide the full unbaised information on all the negative aspects of LPG.

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Thought I’d add another comment – Here in London where I live – there are virtually no attached garages but 90% of people have cars – so charging the e-car battery is impossible at home (one is usually forced to park 100 yards or more away from the house. 20 min charge times are not too feasible at a fuel stop for a very limited range – after all the range will diminish rapidly in wet night time conditions.

The final straw as far as I’m concerned is capital cost of an e-car when a small petrol car is around £7,000 upwards.new.

Clive says:
15 December 2011

The new plug in Prius sounds ideal, alas no doubt the London CONgestion charge will be adjusted to only just exclude it, like it has been with the old Prius. Answer is to stay away from London – take your business and your money AWAY form London.

tahrey says:
10 August 2012

I’m confused. Hydrogen-fuelled cars haven’t been about burning it in an ICE for quite some time now. The necessary conversion of the tank, the fuel lines, the ECU, valves, exhaust system etc just isn’t worth it vs just stripping out the existing engine/transmission/tank and dropping in a H2 tank, catalyst cell, electric motor and power controller. Even before you consider how much more wasteful of supplied fuel energy ICEs are vs electric motors.

Seriously, fuel cells are where it’s at. All the smooth, gearchange-free torque and zero-emission credentials of a battery-electric, without the troublesome batteries. What’s not to like?

Something about fuel-cell vehicles must be either very troublesome to manufacture, unprofitable or politically unwelcome, though, as I’ve heard little about them recently, after the brief appearance of the seemingly very-nearly-market-ready Honda FCX Clarity some years ago. It had the same performance as a midrange petrol or diesel car (~100hp, 10s 0-60), a decent between-fills range, quick fill-ups – from a standard, easily converted forecourt – a much longer useful life before some essential and exceptionally expensive component would need replacing (I’ve owned 4 cars so far, over 10 years; the three cheaper ones added together still wouldn’t match the price of a replacement battery in a 7-year-old battery-electric), much less environmental load in both manufacture and disposal, lower overall weight, etc.

If you hook an electrolysis plant up to some kind of renewable energy generator, it’s essentially free fuel but for the generator’s building and maintenance costs, and quite definitely carbon-neutral. It’s easier to store and transport electrical energy chemically in the form of H2 than as the various substances in a battery (lighter, more compact, just as safe when stored in a suitable container, doesn’t suffer as much charge-fade in storage, containers can be cycled many more times and refurbished or recycled very easily…) … etc.

Connect an electrolysis plant to a wind turbine, slurp up seawater as a feedstock… get hydrogen, chlorine, sodium, oxygen out the other side, all individually useful substances… for no fossil fuel spend. Compress the H2 into tanks (or a tanker) and cart them off to customers with an H2-powered truck. Connect canisters to a home microgenerator, or hook them up to a mini-bike’s cell, or pump the gas from the tanker to a filling station’s holding tank and from there into fuel cell cars… all very nice, traditional, but still eco friendly and overall a fair bit better for everyone in the chain than extracting, transporting and refining crude oil, then dealing with its products, none of which are THAT friendly when in liquid form.

Justin G8YTZ says:
22 November 2012

Some observations and ideas for a practical EV…

1. Your walk home will be longer in the winter due to poorer battery performance in the cold and more demands from lights and heating.

2. You will need a diesel recovery truck to transport the thing back home each night in order to re-charge it for the next day’s commute.

3. Perhaps bus companies could provide a tow hook for stranded EV’s – just stop at a bus stop and hitch a ride and re-charge by using the brake regen feature by keeping your foot on the brake then you should have enough juice to get you from your local bus stop to your garage.

4. A more practical solution would be to keep a Honda generator running in the boot to re-charge you car on the move, giving much improved range – proven technology too… This is how hybrid buses work after all.

5. You could reduce weight, eating nimble bread as part of your calorie controlled diet and then put the car on a diet… Throw away any seats (above two), remove doors and windows and call it Twizy!

6. You could install solar panels on the roof of the car and also benefit from free electricity and the feed-in tariff.

7. If you live in London, perhaps in a nice Georgian Terrace in Chelsea; please be careful to route your charging cable across the pavemnt in such a way that pedestrians don’t trip up on it and fit an RCD trip so that when the urban foxes chew the cable you don’t have a family of dead foxes next to your car each morning to put in the recycling bin!