Hydrogen fuel needs an Elon Musk to power it into the public eye - Jim Duffy

Hydrogen-fuelled cars really need the likes of Elon Musk to create a 'razzmatazz', says Duffy. Picture: Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images
Hydrogen-fuelled cars really need the likes of Elon Musk to create a 'razzmatazz', says Duffy. Picture: Frederic Brown/AFP/Getty Images
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Electric cars are very much in vogue. Diesel seems to be coming to an end. This particularly dirty fuel that was to help cut emissions and save the planet appears to be burning itself out as emissions tests were allegedly rigged and particulate filters come under scrutiny.

Good old unleaded petrol is still holding its own and if I were to buy a new car in the next few months this would probably be my engine of choice. There is still plenty of oil at the bottom of the oceans and plenty of companies ready to explore, drill, produce and refine it. Despite Greta Thunberg and many others, oil is still there or there about for a few decades. But, there is an outlier on the horizon: hydrogen.

Duffy admires Japan's progress in the hydrogen power sector, after the country created a network of hydrogen filling stations along its highways. Picture: Contributed

Duffy admires Japan's progress in the hydrogen power sector, after the country created a network of hydrogen filling stations along its highways. Picture: Contributed

While Elon Musk is making steady progress with his electric powered Tesla vehicles, it is not the only game in town. Certainly Tesla shares are at an all-time high, topping a whopping $500, but hydrogen-powered cars are quietly and slowly being developed under the radar, even drawing attention from Mr Musk himself.

The Tesla co-founder and CEO has dismissed hydrogen fuel cells as “mind-bogglingly stupid”; this immediately arouses my attention. Mr Musk told shareholders at an annual general meeting years ago that hydrogen fuel cells were “a load of rubbish” and “success is simply not possible”. Now I am really interested. Why? Because it sounds to me that Elon Musk sees hydrogen as a threat.

Hydrogen-fuelled cars are no longer just a threat to the likes of Tesla and Mr Musk’s battery or bust vision of the future. They are already very much in the pipeline of big manufacturers. A 2017 KPMG survey of 1,000 senior auto executives in the US found they believe that hydrogen fuel cells have a better long-term future than electric cars. So why are we not reading about them? Why are we not seeing hydrogen cars up in lights? Well, like all innovations sometimes it’s those who shout the loudest who get the column inches. In short, hydrogen-powered cars do not have an Elon Musk front of house as yet. Yet being the operative word.

Japanese progress

Toyota has unveiled its latest hydrogen fuel cell Mirai saloon, which it hopes to launch in late 2020. While Toyota went big on the fanfair it really needed the likes of Musk to create the razzmatazz which makes the car “sticky” in our mind’s eye. Many big European brands are also busy fine-tuning and developing their own hydrogen vehicles. They know what is around the corner.

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Countries like Japan that have to import commodities like oil are creating revolutionary infrastructure to drive hydrogen. Japan has even created its own hydrogen highway, a network of hydrogen filling stations placed along roadsides. The country is also leading the way with Australia on the introduction of hydrogen-powered buses. Japan is expected to have almost 80 hydrogen fuel cell buses by the end of March. A new hydrogen production facility is scheduled to begin operations in Fukushima this year. This will be used to power vehicles during the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Hydrogen fuel cells have arrived and are showing great promise. In the UK, hydrogen production is quietly bubbling away – albeit it is going to take years before we have hydrogen filling stations lining our high streets and motorways.

But, it leads me to the whole marketing question of hydrogen power for cars, buses and, indeed, homes. Where is the hydrogen champion? Who is banging the drum for this “clean” 21st century fuel? No-one comes to mind. But I would wager that as hydrogen fuel cells start to make an appearance at a garage forecourt near you, at least one advocate will emerge.

Hydrogen power is a sleeping giant with billions of dollars globally quietly going into its development.

I bet it won’t be long until Greta gives it a mention.

- Jim Duffy MBE, Create Special