VW, Audi Plan Big On Fuel-Cell Hydrogen Cars

Volkswagen group is now working on Hydrogen-powered cars that are technologically fascinating and fun to drive. The two models – VW Passat HyMotion and Audi A7 h-tron Quattro– have already graduated from test labs, they were even previewed at the Los Angeles Show last November. While Toyota is selling its Fuel cell Mirai sedan this year at select markets, VW group is waiting for the time to ripe, with influential technologies and platform designs.

This year is going to be the pinnacle year, a new beginning for the fuel-cell cars. While automakers are committed to developing reliable fuel-cell technologies for more than a decade, a commercial volume production will be a real boost to the sector. Toyota, the company which succeed in bringing gas-hybrids in large numbers, will start the selling its Mirai FCV from this September in U.S, U.K, Germany and Denmark. The car caught the attention from the floors of last year LA Show for being the first production H2 car and more so for its water-drop contour design.

VW group, the second ‘boss’ of the car industry after Toyota, is creating showroom-ready fuel-cell models so that it can bang at the right time. VW Passat Hy Motion and Audi A7 h-tron have been shortlisted already for volume production, but may skip this year as the company sees lack of fueling infrastructure as a serious hurdle. There are very few hydrogen fueling points in the United States and Germany has just 16 stations.

Both fuel-cell powered Passat and A7 Sportback, along with VW Golf Sportwagen Hymotion, are born out of the company’s Marginal Transverse Matrix platform that is common to regular cars. This is where VW takes a different tack to other FCV makers like Toyota, Honda, and GM in that they install the fuel cell, battery pack, hydrogen tanks and hybrid drive train componentry in standard production vehicles as opposed to brand new platform designs. This brings down their production costs as they can be made alongside standard models in the existing factories. What is even more interesting is the clever packaging of the fuel cell stuffs, without sacrificing interior space or design compared to standard versions.

For instance, take the Passat HyMotion. The hydrogen tanks are located in the under-body, saving on interior space and design. These tanks are made of carbon-fibres that are strong and time-tested in F1s, making them much safer than our regular gas tanks made out of sheet metals. The fuel-cell and other related components are designed to fit the usual engine compartment. The fuel-cell uses the hydrogen fuel to produce electricity for the batteries, using free-air oxygen, leaving water vapour as the by-product. In fact, the exhaust pipe for the FCVs are made of plastics! A 3-phase motor then powers the wheels using same techs as other EVs. The car’s acceleration is claimed as 10 seconds for a 0-100kmph sprint.

But that’s all! The Audi A7 h-tron, which uses identical fuel-cell unit as the Passat, has a larger battery system pushing combined output further to 170 KW or 220 hp. The performance of this car is fairly respectable, with 0-100 kmph in 7.9 seconds and a top speed on 180 kmph. Not a typical Audi kind or for a driver’s enthusiasm, but I think it would be fine for average drives.

We are most likely to think that a fuel-cell Audi sedan would be tight-packed with technologies and electronics that rules out Quattro 4-WD. But that isn’t the case. The Fuel cell powers the electric motor on front axle and charges the battery as well. The battery powers the second electric motor on the rear axle, leaving no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles. This is similar to the system found in the new Tesla Model S launched last year.

Of all, what makes the Audi A7 h-tron paramount is its plug-in feature, which uses our domestic power output to charge the batteries. The car has an all-electric driving range of about 50 kms, best suitable for everyday city drives. This saves fuel, the Hydrogen in this case, which is again important since H2 is not a naturally occuring element but is produced. Making H2 out of renewable energy is a pre-condition for making this “zero-emission” in strict sense. This feature will make a serious canvass among those pure-EV buyers simply because of the H2 plug-in’s long electric driving range upto 500 kms and quick refueling comparing to EV’s hours of charging.

There is no rpm counter at the instrument console, but instead one finds a ‘power’ metre that informs actual power flow. Actual production costs of these fuel cell cars is unclear, but the use of valuable materials like platinum needed for fuel-cell assemblies and limited production will push costs higher. But then in a decade or two, developed markets like U.S and Germany is most likely to have some handful of FCVs costing equivalent or less than conventional petrol or diesel cars. In India, grappling with vague and unclear policies on alternative technologies, FCVs will take at least few decades!!

Photo Credits: Caradvice.com, Autoexpress.co.uk, Automobilemag.com, Netcarshow.com

Dhiyanesh Ravichandran

Editorial consultant (Automotive and Technology), academic, and blogger based in India. He can be reached at wagenclub@gmail.com

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