Along with battery electric vehicles, hydrogen-powered fuel cell passenger cars are the only zero-emission alternative drive option for motorized private transport. The first fuel cell passenger cars were tested back in the 1960s as demonstration projects. A new boost to fuel cell development came in the 1990s. In most cases the fuel cell test vehicles were converted cars that had originally been fitted with an internal combustion engine. At the time, however, the early test models were still not competitive, either technically or economically. In addition, up until about 10 years ago petrol engine prototypes were still being tested with hydrogen as an alternative energy and low-emission fuel. These were vehicles with modified bivalent engines, which could run on both petrol and hydrogen. Owing to the fuel, hydrogen-powered internal combustion engines not only achieve somewhat higher efficiencies than in petrol operation, they also emit much lower levels of pollutants.
Although hydrogen is a clean fuel with excellent physicochemical properties, it has been unable to gain acceptance as a fuel for motorized road transport. For passenger cars the focus is now almost entirely on hydrogen-powered fuel cells as a source of drive energy.
There is now a wealth of practical experience available with fuel cell prototype passenger cars. A number of major car manufacturers are starting to offer early series-production vehicles which are now just as good as conventional internal combustion engine cars in terms of functionality. The number of fuel cell cars manufactured over the coming years is projected to range from several hundred up to thousands of units. Virtually all fuel cell passenger cars today are equipped with PEM fuel cells, in both series and parallel configurations. The prices for medium-sized vehicles fitted with fuel cells are still well above those for passenger cars with internal combustion engines – at around 60,000 EUR/USD. With the launch of FCEV series production, vehicle cost and prices are expected to fall substantially.
The fuel cell stacks in the latest fuel cell models have an output of 100 kW or more. As compared with battery electric cars they have a greater range – of around 400 to 500 kilometers today – with a lower vehicle weight and much shorter refueling times of three to five minutes. They usually carry 4 to 7 kg of hydrogen on board, stored in pressure tanks at 700 bar.