He only took over as chairman in January, but Audi’s Bram Schot is already ringing the changes by announcing a boost in the company’s hydrogen fuel cell technology. “We really want to speed it up,” Schot said. “We are going to put more priority into hydrogen fuel cells – more money, more capacity of people and more confidence.” He added: “If this modality is here to stay, then you have to try to find the most effective and efficient way to drive electric. And then you come to hydrogen fuel cells.”
While all-electric vehicles have myriad benefits, it would be remiss to ignore the problems – the biggest being the ability to source the natural materials, including cobalt, needed to make more batteries as demand increases. And Audi appears to be tackling this issue head-on by reviving its h-tron programme, which was first unveiled in 2016.
So why could hydrogen power be better than electric power? Well, it’s the most abundant element on earth and, provided it’s extracted in the right way, one of the cleanest fuel sources too as it is non-toxic. And considering Audi has had problems with supplies of its own e-tron batteries, it’s no wonder it’s concerned about keeping up with demand.
Audi are keeping fairly tight-lipped about this setback, with no official word from them as yet, but The Brussels Times reported that the Audi plant in the Belgian capital has reduced its production forecast for 2019. The problem is two-fold: Audi are struggling to compete with the likes of bigger-spending Mercedes-Benz and BMW for the LG batteries, and there’s also the issue of slow delivery of the electric engines themselves, thanks to recent strikes at the Audi plant in Györ, Hungary.
All of this means that delivery times for e-tron customers have gone up from four to five months to six or seven, though Audi spokesperson Sofie Luyckx insists this is “not an exceptional waiting time for an all-new Audi”.
Back to Audi’s h-tron fuel cell concept… When it was revealed the car maker claimed a range of up to 373 miles – that’s better than a Tesla Model S. But best of all, the refuelling time was said to be just four minutes. Those sorts of figures are difficult to ignore, but hydrogen isn’t without its faults either.
It’s very expensive, for one, as it takes an awful lot of time to separate the hydrogen molecules from the oxygen. It’s not a simple process, which is why this fuel source has struggled to get off the ground. Hydrogen is also difficult to store; it can be pumped through pipelines like oil can or transported on lorries and ships like coal. And it’s flammable. Highly flammable, so any fires would be catastrophic.
Despite the investment in hydrogen power, Audi is still pouring an awful lot of resources into electric vehicles, and plans to launch up to 12 all-electric models by 2025. But could a hydrogen hybrid be the best of both worlds? Audi thinks it could well be which is why the brand’s sixth-generation hydrogen fuel cell system also includes a battery that can be charged via a plug.
It’s very much a case of watch this space, but the fact that Audi has gone back to hydrogen as a viable fuel option as part of a £12 billion investment into alternative power sources speaks volumes.