Monday, January 5, 2015

Best Fuel Cell Vehicle yet...from the VW/Audi Group

Recently I had the chance to drive to advanced fuel cell research cars.  Both had similar set ups based on each other. The two cars were the VW Passat HyMotion and the Audi A7 h-tron.  The difference came with the Audi famed quattro adapted to fuel cell use.  An electric motor at each end powering 4 wheels, but more on that in a bit.
The first of the dynamic duo that I drove was the VW Passat HyMotion.  Man, what a nice car that was.  The fuel cell system was the quietest one I had driven today.   Nary a compressor whine or grumble to be heard.  Just a soft whoosh when you really stepped on the accelerator.

VW's version of the fuel cell borrows heavily from their hybrid technologies and adds in a fuel cell to charge batteries or provide extra oomph when need to charge up an on ramp or keep up with fast moving traffic.   No hesitation, just go.  Feather foot and and you're keeping with traffic on battery power, need to quick step around a fruit cart on Pico (It really happened) and the car was actually nimble and responsive.

What struck me most about the VW Passat HyMotion was the build quality of the Passat in general, but specifically the choice of materials and the solidity of the body on the rough streets around DTLA.  With no engine noise to intrude there is little that the body and tires don't filter out for the occupants of the car.  I think I may need to look seriously at a regular Gasser Passat when my wife's Milan comes up for trade in the next year or so.

Range on this particular fuel cell driven at the speed limit is about 300 miles.  0-60 with all the amps pulled out that you can is about 8 seconds.  Refuel time...10-20 minutes depending on the set up of the fueling station.  That means this car is capable of a Vegas run on a single fill.  Take that Tesla.

And fueling stations, or lack thereof is what is going to keep the VW Passat HyMotion out of the production in the foreseeable future.  CA has aggressive plans to add hydrogen fueling stations, but even what we have planned doesn't meet the 200 that VW feels would be need to make a sustainable business model.  Sad, its really a great car and its water out the tail pipe as the only emission makes it one sorely needed here in the Los Angeles basin.

I inquired as to cost...which the rep was really sly.  This isn't even a pre-production model at this point, but VW is looking to price it competitive with its Toyota and Hyundai competition when it does come to market...about $80K in today's dollars
Now for the real star of the Fuel Cell Twins
The Audi A7 h-tron quattro absolutely blew me away.  Yes, you do give up a little autobahn prowess with a top speed of about 111mpg, but this is So Cal and even a Vegas run doesn't get going that fast so it will pace traffic and produce only water vapor in the process.

Based on a similar system to save costs as the VW Passat HyMotion, and using even some of the same technology the Audi A7 has a very unique set up. With 540 Nm (398.3 lb-ft) of propulsive power at its disposal the Audi A7 Sportback h-tron quattro, which tips the scales at only around 1,950 kilograms (4,299.0 lb), races from a standstill to 100 km/h (62.1 mph) in 7.9 seconds. Its top speed is 180 km/h (111.8 mph) – a top figure for its field of competitors. The e-quattro concept requires precise coordination of the electric motors – the technology demonstrator offers a sporty, stable and high-traction drive that is comparable to a production car with mechanical quattro drive.

What does all that mean?  In a real world cruise around DTLA this fuel cell gave up none, absolutely NONE of the luxury or perceptible performance to the standard Gasser.  What you did gain is the absolute silence of the fuel cell power train, which in my not so humble is the very best iteration of this technology I've ever driven.  That you can bank on.  Audi kept the character and spirit of the brand alive in the conversion to a green car.  Quite the accomplishment.

From their Press release:

  • Expertise in fuel cell technology – A7 Sportback h-tron quattro technology demonstrator ready for real-life traffic  
  • Long range – more than 500 kilometers (310.7 mi) 
  • Plug-in hybrid concept can and electric quattro

It covers over 500 kilometers (310.7 mi) on one tank of fuel – and its exhaust emits nothing more than a few drops of water: The A7 Sportback h tron quattro uses a powerful, sporty electric drive with a fuel cell as its energy source, in combination with a hybrid battery and an additional electric motor in the rear. Its drive configuration makes the emission-free Audi A7 Sportback h-tron quattro a quattro through and through, with 170 kilowatts of power at its disposal – a new departure in fuel cell cars. There is no mechanical connection between the front and rear axles. As an e quattro, the A7 Sportback h-tron quattro features fully electronic management of torque distribution.

The engineer I rode with felt it would be several years to a decade before an economically sustainable infrastructure is in place for them to consider a launch in the US let alone California.  Drat.  Germany is on track to have 2000 hydrogen fueling stations in place within the decade which at that time they get this marvelous machine.

Cost of the will carry a premium over the standard A7, but how much is any ones guess.  The basic 3L supercharged 2015 A7 starts at 65.9K, options up to over 80K without trying...  The rep I was with was very coy in avoiding the discussion or possible retail value.

This is the most painless green car I've ever been in. Applause to Audi.

Of course the one thing no one talks about much is the green house gasses associated with the production of the majority of the hydrogen in the market right now.  The most economical way to get hydrogen is to crack methane molecules leaving free hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide...CO2 that bugger of all green house gasses.  Its the elephant in the room no one is talking about.

Several years ago with the launch of Honda's F-Cell I talked with an engineer at length over this very issue.  He acknowledged its a problem for hydrogen in the near future.  The carbon footprint using methane as the source of hydrogen left their F-Cell CO2 footprint comparable to a compact car getting 25 MPG.

There is hope at least.  Audi sees it in wind powered electrolysis where water is broken into hydrogen and free oxygen.  There currently is a solar powered hydrogen station in Santa Monica that does this for a carbon footprint free source of hydrogen, that that's the rarity not the standard.  Yet.