Hydrogen Car Tech Is Becoming A Battle

Then-Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder at the wheel of a hydrogen Mercedes back in 2004.
Then-Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder at the wheel of a hydrogen Mercedes back in 2004.
Photo: Getty Images (Getty Images)
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Sure, everyone claims that they want clean energy, but the way that breaks down country by country produces some strange dynamics. What’s shaping up now is European carmakers facing off against their own governments, to say nothing of Toyota in Japan and Hyundai in South Korea. All that and more in The Morning Shift for March 10, 2021.

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1st Gear: European Automakers Are Facing Off Against Toyota And Hyundai; Their Own Countries

I remember back to 2013 when there was a whole uproar over the safety of a particular car using an old and dangerous refrigerant. The rub was that the car in question was a proudly German Mercedes, and the country bringing the issue with it was France, with its struggling home auto market.

This quickly became a political issue between France and Germany, with one banning cars from the other, and it all eventually getting smoothed over within the EU. This is all to say that questions in the car world quickly become geopolitical affairs, with nations and their national auto industries staying very tight.

With that in mind, please enjoy this report from the Financial Times detailing how European automakers are at odds with their home governments:

“You won’t see any hydrogen usage in cars,” said Volkswagen chief executive Herbert Diess.

The idea of a big market for vehicles powered by hydrogen fuel cells is “very optimistic”, according to Diess, who has overseen a €35bn push into electric cars. “Not even in 10 years,” he told the Financial Times, “because the physics behind it are so unreasonable.”

France and Germany have driven the region’s effort to build a world-leading industry based on the most abundant element in the universe, a pillar of the EU’s plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Together they have pledged a combined €16bn to hydrogen power generation technologies, the largest direct public investment in the field by EU countries.

Their carmakers, however, remain unconvinced. VW, the world’s second-biggest by sales, has all but abandoned its hydrogen plans. German rival Mercedes, which invested in hydrogen for decades to no avail, quietly shelved its last passenger car fuel cell project last year, while BMW maintains only a toehold in the technology. 

The FT also notes that France’s big car company — once PSA now Stellantis — is big on EVs and against the government’s push towards hydrogen.

This all contrasts against Toyota being weak on EVs, strong on hydrogen, and in line with Japan’s national push towards hydrogen. Japan is now more than a few years into developing a kind of hydrogen highway to Australia, experimenting with giant container ships carrying liquid hydrogen up from coal-rich Australia to energy-sparse Japan. Meanwhile, Hyundai is investing in hydrogen production in China, against U.S. pressure to the contrary, as the Financial Times reported earlier this year.

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Again, it’s easy to see how this global issue of clean energy becomes one of national policies and industries butting up against each other.

2nd Gear: It Wasn’t Dieselgate But It’ll Cost Daimler $1.5 Billion

One of the lessons learned from Dieselgate wasn’t just that VW was cheating on its emissions tests; almost everybody was cheating on their emissions tests. It’s just that VW was the most prominent public case. Less public was Daimler, but it is still on the hook for $1.5 billion, as Reuters reports:

A federal judge on Tuesday approved Daimler AG’s $1.5 billion settlement to resolve a U.S. government probe into the German automaker’s use of undisclosed software that allowed excess diesel pollution to be emitted by 250,000 of its vehicles in the United States.

The settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and California Air Resources Board, which was announced in September, includes an $875 million civil penalty levied under the Clean Air Act, $70 million in additional penalties and $546 million to fix the polluting vehicles and offset excess emissions, court papers show.

U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan called the California settlement fair, reasonable and in the public interest, and noted settlement talks lasted for more than three years.

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Remember that the car industry is a shrewd one. If it thinks it’s cheaper to cheat and maybe get caught, it’ll take those odds. Hell, most of the time it’s cheaper just to break the rules.

3rd Gear: VW’s EV-Transition Guy Is Outta Here

There’s been some drama about VW’s troubled launch of its most prominent new electric cars, and now the executive behind a lot of that push is outta here. He is off to work on ... smart boats with his family? That sounds, uh, real. I guess.

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From Reuters:

Volkswagen Group strategy chief Michael Jost will quit after more than a decade with the automaker, he said on his website, adding he would now focus on building smart boats with his family.

“Since 1996 I have been leading a weekend marriage and family. Now corona has brought me home and we have realized that we can live together. I want to stay here. I thank you all and I do apologize if it was ‘too much’ sometimes,” Jost said.

According to his LinkedIn profile Jost joined VW Group brand Skoda in 2010, where he served as head of product management and product strategy until becoming VW brand chief strategy officer in 2015.

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Look, folks, these boats aren’t going to en-smarten themselves.

4th Gear: We’re Gonna Make More Batteries And That’s What’ll Solve The Environment

The Biden Administration is pushing hard for more electric vehicle development here in the U.S. What does that entail exactly? Let’s listen to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm talk about the issue, as reported in Automotive News:

“President Biden is demanding that we get America to that net-zero [carbon emissions] by 2050. The transportation sector is the largest source of those emissions,” [Energy Secretary Jennifer] Granholm said during a virtual event organized by Securing America’s Future Energy, a nonpartisan group committed to reducing the country’s reliance on oil.

“We need to jam on the accelerator here,” the former Michigan governor said.

[...]

“Beyond minerals, we’ve got to scale up our domestic battery production itself to compete globally,” said Granholm, adding that the U.S will need more than 100 battery-cell manufacturing locations in the U.S. by 2035.

She added: “Today, we’ve got five. China has 96.”

I guess bumping up the gas tax, cutting out the “light truck” loophole in our emissions regulations, and putting in bus and train lines across the country doesn’t sound as sexy as building as many battery plants as China.

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5th Gear: Auto Industry Got NHTSA To Give It Another Month Reviewing Safety Standards

There’s nothing that’s out-and-out nefarious going on in this news item about the auto industry asking for an extended review of the government’s safety standards except, well, that every single time the auto industry has reviewed the government’s safety standards it has worked to weaken them.

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Here’s the basics of it, as Automotive News reports:

NHTSA in December issued an advance notice of proposed rule-making that sought comment on amending its test procedures for any of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards “for reasons other than considerations relevant only to automated driving systems,” according to an unpublished document.

The comment period ended Feb. 8 but, starting Wednesday, will reopen for 30 days.

[...]

The association said the additional time was necessary for it “to conduct a comprehensive review of the extensive number of regulations” and auto safety standards that have detailed test procedures, according to the request. It also cited COVID-19 restrictions as an impediment to organizing work group meetings to discuss the topic.

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For more reading on how America struggles to keep its cars safe, please enjoy this read from Jalopnik alum Aaron Gordon on how safety ratings started ... and withered.

Reverse: Cars Are An Information Technology

Cars move people, but they function to move ideas.

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Neutral: What Is Your Favorite Hydrogen Car?

And why is it the Mazda RX-8?

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

DISCUSSION

justanotherburneraccount2222
JustAnotherBurner

“The transportation sector is the largest source of these emissions”

Daily reminder that SHIPS account for over half of that. All the battery tech in cars we talk about is great, but unless someone is willing to take on shipping/cruise lines/etc., the dent we can make in emissions is only so big. Not only are ships generally heavy polluters, they also use lower grade/higher sulfur fuel.