Hydrogen Gets a Look-in

The rise of electric vehicles continued on in the second half of 2021, and there was more to this half of the year than the dominance of battery power.

Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles took center stage, as two industry behemoths, Hyundai Motor Group and Toyota Motor Corp., underscored their commitment to the fringe technology. On its website, Hyundai laid out its vision for a fully fledged hydrogen society, “where hydrogen energy can be easily and conveniently used for ‘Everyone, Everything, Everywhere’ by 2040.” 

The Korean manufacturer aims to launch a string of FCEVs from 2023 onward. The following year a fuel cell-powered semi-truck will make its debut. From 2024 through 2028, Hyundai will bring to market a full range of commercial vehicles, including delivery vans and city buses. The company broke ground on a $1.1 billion factory capable of producing 100,000 fuel cells per year, the Carscoops website reported in October. The plant is expected to come online in the second half of 2023. 

Toyota emphasized that it will be doing its part in driving a hydrogen economy, although it is taking a less aggressive approach than its Korean competitors. That said, in December the Japanese company unveiled its production-ready, second-generation fuel cell stack. The stacks will be assembled in Brussels, Belgium, beginning in January, Toyota said in a news release. They will be available in two configurations (cube and rectangular) to make a wider range of applications possible. The fuel cell stacks won’t be offered in FCEVs but are intended for use in trucks, buses, trains and boats. In that sense, Toyota is both a technology provider and an OEM.  

Toyota is also taking a different approach to hydrogen technology. While committed to FCEVs, it is also experimenting with hydrogen as a fuel for internal combustion engines. Using a modified injection system and fuel supply, Toyota has been using a hydrogen-powered Corolla Sport in the Super Taikyu race series in Japan, where it took part in and completed a 24-hour endurance race. In December Toyota presented its second experimental hydrogen-powered vehicle, the GR Yaris. Toyota president Akio Toyoda hinted that the technology might be production-ready in about a decade. 

Toyota’s endeavors are part of a broader Japanese plan to drag the internal combustion engine, or ICE, from the gates of hell. The effort involves Toyota, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Mazda, Subaru and Yamaha, Carscoops reported. The manufacturers will not only conduct research on hydrogen engines but will also study biodiesel and biomass-derived synthetic fuel. 

The move comes at a time when more and more major manufacturers are either committing to phasing out ICEs or signaling their readiness to do so. On the sidelines of the COP26 U.N. Climate Change Conference, BYD, Ford, General Motors, Jaguar Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo all pledged to cease production of ICE-powered vehicles by 2040, Reuters news agency reported. Of the six, Jaguar Land Rover and Volvo had already promised to do so. 

Small surprise, then, that Toyota only recently presented its first mass market BEV, the bZ4X. It will launch toward the end of 2022 and will be the first of at least seven “beyond Zero” vehicles. Toyota announced in October that it has earmarked $13.5 billion for investment in the accompanying battery development and production through 2030. 

When the bZ4X launches, it will be competitive but by no means groundbreaking, especially not in terms of range and charging speeds. Instead, Toyota is relying on its reputation as a manufacturer of some of the most reliable vehicles in the world. The Japanese giant will guarantee a mere 10% battery degradation over a period of 10 years or 240,000 kilometers. It will also be offered – under certain conditions – with a warranty of 1 million km per 10 years.

Speaking to the press in September, Toyota officials said they wanted to avoid costly battery recalls and reputational risk at all costs. Looking back at the past few months, it is easy to see why. Ford, General Motors and Hyundai have had major and costly recalls. While they might be able to recover money from their battery suppliers, that won’t undo the bad press. 

Meanwhile, the expansion plans of battery cell suppliers continue unabated. Industry leader CATL of China has annual output capacity of 65.45 gigawatt hours, with an additional 92.5 GWh under construction, data compiled by Reuters showed in October. LG Energy Solutions is forecast to hit 155 GWh of capacity by the end of 2021. The South Korean electronics company aims to build new production facilities in the U.S. states of Ohio and Tennessee, as well as in Indonesia. As a result, annual output capacity is expected to almost triple by 2025. Their compatriots at SK ON are at global annual production capacity of 40 GWh. Its own expansion in the state of Georgia  will increase capacity to 220 GWh. The new plant is expected to begin operations in 2022. 

Samsung SDI and Japanese major Panasonic do not disclose manufacturing capacity. But Panasonic is working on the new, potentially game-changing 4680-type cells that Tesla intends to use going forward. 

To be fitted in a new structural battery, Panasonic’s cells are expected to result in a 16% increase in range for the Berlin-built Model Y. Tesla’s new plant is essentially completed, with only some necessary permits keeping the company’s divisive founder Elon Musk from bringing the German facility online officially. 

Tesla’s second new plant, under construction in Texas, is also on track to begin operations in 2022. While this is expected to give the automaker a big boost, its production push is still hampered by a chip and cell shortage, Musk said in November. But even with its existing production facilities in the United States and China, Tesla announced in October that it was able to break production, delivery and earning records in the third quarter. On top of that, it achieved those record earnings mainly by selling vehicles, not by selling regulatory emission credits to traditional automakers or bitcoin trading.