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Transport and sustainability
Transport and sustainability

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Getting FCVs established

The mainstream industry approach towards fuel cell vehicles does suggest that although some vehicles may be available in the next few years, the widespread use of fuel cell cars is at least a decade (if not more) away. One approach is to introduce FCVs for fleets, with buses and delivery vehicles being obvious pioneer applications. The problem of tank size is less acute for larger vehicles, and these fleets can be served by dedicated fuelling and maintenance depots, overcoming the refuelling problem.

Global demonstration programmes of fuel cell buses include the EU CUTE (Clean Urban Transport for Europe) project that ran from 2005–2007, closely followed by the HyFLEET:CUTE project (2006–2009) that tested 33 Mercedes-Benz Citaro fuel cell buses in 10 cities worldwide, including London – see Figure 18. Following this experience, London now operates ten fuel cell buses serviced by its own hydrogen fuelling station (if you wish, follow the link for details [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ). The year 2011 also saw the opening of the UK's first public hydrogen station at the Honda manufacturing facility in Swindon, part of the planned Hydrogen Highway along the M4 (this BBC report and video clip present a somewhat optimistic view that ignores fuel manufacturing and distribution issues, but explains well how hydrogen fuelling works).

Figure 18 A Mercedes-Benz Citaro fuel cell bus in service in London during the CUTE demonstration (the hydrogen tanks are on the bus roof)

Another approach to getting FCVs established is to redesign the system whereby people obtain a car to one that better suits FCVs. To some extent, manufacturers have already done this for BEVs – for example, by leasing cars and batteries to address the problem of high initial cost. One company has sought to take this approach by designing both the car (Figure 19) and the way cars are provided to overcome the usual FCV problems. This is the small UK company, Riversimple, whose founder explains their philosophy in Video 4.

Figure 19 The Riversimple concept vehicle

If you are reading this course as an ebook, you can access this video here: The Open Source Hydrogen Car

Riversimple's open source and collaborative approach has produced an energy-efficient and lightweight concept design that only requires a small fuel cell stack and a small hydrogen tank to provide a range of 380 km (240 miles) – see Riversimple (2010) and Figure 20. This keeps the costs low, with life cycle CO2 emissions of 31 g km−1 from hydrogen manufactured conventionally from natural gas. This design, with its emphasis on energy efficiency, does not require major improvements in the production of hydrogen to cut CO2 emissions, and so helps to overcome the Cancawe (2007) criticisms about hydrogen production. In other words, this design seeks to overcome the problem of losses in the long fuel conversion chain.

Figure 20 Riversimple cutaway diagram

However, it is not just the car design that is optimized for fuel cells. The design of the business model for how customers obtain the car is also new (Thackara, 2010). People buy not a car but a mobility service. The monthly lease (much like that for a mobile phone) will cover all costs including vehicle maintenance, insurance and fuel deliveries. This overcomes the fuel supply problem to users and also means that Riversimple, not its customers, bears any risks involved in being a pioneer (so customers don't need to worry about uncertain resale value, or if the vehicle or fuel cells have a major failure). Customers will interact with Riversimple and its user community through a personalized digital interface accessed from the car, on their computer or via their mobile phone. In this way they will be able to manage their account, request maintenance, ask questions, order fuel and so on.

At the time of writing, we have yet to see how successful this individual company, the car design and the new business model will be – a 30-car trial of both the cars and the leasing model will commence in Leicester in 2012. However, this example shows that it is not only the vehicle technology that needs to change in order for us to move towards sustainable transport: the way in which we obtain mobility also needs to change.

Models of wider transport service packages are being developed that include not only access to cars but access to train, bus and other travel services as well. Examples include the GO-OP car, bus and rail cooperative, and Mobility car share in Switzerland. These models also have beneficial impacts on travel behaviour, because their pricing structure encourages travel by bus and train, or more efficient travel in general.