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Do hydrogen powered racing cars hold the key to the future of clean mobility?

Could a hydrogen fuel-based racing series do the same for FCEVs as Formula E is doing for EVs? By Steve McEvoy

Motor racing has always challenged the boundaries of what is possible from a technological perspective, and has often been instrumental in driving change in the consumer car market. Take the significant developments in speed, performance, endurance and safety as an example: once innovations prove successful in the racing industry, they can be replicated in the consumer space to create more comfortable and performing vehicles. Now, with climate change and governments’ net zero targets, there is significant pressure for all parts of the automotive industry to embrace carbon free technologies, including more sustainable ways to power vehicles.

Sustainable fuels are integral to the future of mobility and the industry is starting to investigate new sources of clean energy. According to Expleo’s report “The Road to Hydrogen Cars”, 84% of automotive leaders believe hydrogen vehicles can help to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions. The UK industry is aware that hydrogen is crucial to reach sustainability goals but cautious about committing to the technology, which is where motorsport innovation can lend a hand.

Key innovations from the motorsport industry

There are many examples of how motorsport has led the way in developing sustainable fuel technology. Over the last few years, there has been a significant focus on electric vehicles (EVs). Take the Formula E Championships for instance: initially a platform for developing EV technology and sustainable mobility, it has become the first sport with a net zero carbon footprint. Braking regeneration is another example: while the technology was initially developed by the racing industry, it is now being used in electric vehicles, bikes and even skateboards.

Motor racing has always challenged the boundaries of what is possible from a technological perspective, and has often been instrumental in driving change in the consumer car market

One of the main concerns for EVs however is battery life. EVs rely on a battery pack to function, which can create limitations, starting with range and charge time. Although advances in battery technology are significant and some OEMs are developing electric HGV solutions, they are not yet here. What’s more, poor EV charging infrastructure can put off buyers, resulting in pricy vehicles that are more suited to city living, where charging stations are more common.

This is one of the reasons why the industry is looking at other ways to power vehicles, and hydrogen is one of the most promising. UK automotive leaders are optimistic about the future of hydrogen, with 63% believing that the first consumer options will be on the roads within two years. Although hydrogen vehicles are not yet as popular as EVs, they have already crossed over to consumers from racing innovation—Hyundai’s ix35 fuel cell and Toyota Mirai are recent examples—and will continue to do so.

The benefits of hydrogen fuel cells

Hydrogen has the potential to be the next fuel source to cross over and be widely adopted in the consumer market, especially as it has been proven that ‘it can be done’ from a technological perspective. As mentioned above, hydrogen has already been successfully applied in motorsports and in consumer vehicles. To understand hydrogen fuel cells to their full potential, Expleo partnered with Faster engineers and became involved in the Dakar Rally project to collaborate on the design of a sports 4×4 powered exclusively by hydrogen. The vehicle is being developed in accordance with the rally-raid’s new energy transition plan, DakarFuture. As Dakar is much more a sporting race than a technological one, it’s notable to see innovation and progress contributing directly to the future of mobility—and do so at a much lower impact on the environment.

Since January 2021, Expleo has been working on designing the vehicle in close cooperation with Faster who provided motor racing expertise. The idea of a hydrogen powered vehicle was born several years ago at Faster, before Expleo was brought in for its expertise in hydrogen mobility. The first prototype will be demonstrated early next year, before finalising technical and technological details for the final race-ready vehicle.

84% of automotive leaders believe hydrogen vehicles can help to reduce the industry’s carbon emissions

Unlike fossil fuels, there are no emissions with fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs) because the energy is produced by a chemical reaction which makes it one of the cleanest options available. In comparison to EVs, it has advantages over range and confidence, as FCEVs can be refuelled quickly—in a matter of minutes—whereas range limitation combined with charge times make EVs a less convenient option.

Although hydrogen has long been considered the perfect ‘clean’ solution due to its zero emissions, obtaining and storing it presents some complex challenges that the industry has yet to overcome. Before the technology crosses over to the mass market, infrastructure will require increased investment. The recent UK Budget outlined upcoming investment in hydrogen as part of the government’s hydrogen strategy, which will help turn this new energy source into a practical and scalable application, both for the racing industry and consumer cars.

Infrastructure investment is crucial

Expleo believes hydrogen fuel cells are a key avenue for the automotive market moving forward, as long as the industry taps into the technical expertise and makes the technology more affordable in the short term. The good news is that we are already seeing strides being made in the right direction. “The Road to Hydrogen Cars” shows that more than 71% of automotive leaders believe their company has the know-how to engineer affordable hydrogen solutions but there are a lot of barriers to adoption. Despite this, there are still concerns around infrastructure and the production of green hydrogen, as well as the safety of engineering and future access to service stations. These are due to limited access to R&D and infrastructure.

Mission H24 LMPH2G
The LMPH2G is the first electric-hydrogen endurance racing prototype

Currently, there are only 11 hydrogen charging stations in the UK compared to the thousands of EV charging points, so there isn’t the right infrastructure support. Infrastructure development will require collaboration between multiple industries including the oil, gas and chemical industries as hydrogen storage will need to be considered. Without significant investment in the infrastructure to store and transport hydrogen, along with producing green hydrogen itself, manufacturers will continue to have issues, resulting in limited R&D and production of hydrogen cars, leaving the UK market behind its European counterparts in the race to clean car leadership.

Will racing tech be able to guide the way?

In a similar way to EV, racing technology will make hydrogen more visible and more attractive, showcasing its potential at the same time as educating consumers on how safe it can be. For example, a hydrogen fuel-based formula could do the same for FCEVs as Formula E is doing for EVs. And some early adopters are already leading the charge: Hyundai plans to become a major hydrogen energy player, working to launch a new FCEV in the consumer space in 2023.

Whether it’s off-road or Formula 1, racing technology could advance hydrogen fuel cell development more quickly than an OEM working on consumer vehicles alone. Racing means continuous testing and stringent safety requirements, which leads to gains in performance. That will be what propels hydrogen forward as a viable fuel alternative. The next frontier will be tackling the infrastructure challenges in the industry, and helping consumers understand how they can benefit from hydrogen cars—both from a performance and climate perspective.

About the author: Steve McEvoy is Vice President of Automotive at Expleo

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