by April Streeter
Open source’, locally manufactured fuel cell car designed for sharing.
With politicians and carmakers waxing lyrical about electric vehicles, the squat hydrogen fuel cell car with a top speed of 50mph introduced by start-up Riversimple in June is definitely bucking prevailing trends.
But what the Urban lacks in pzazz, it makes up in green credentials. Thanks to its super-light carbon composite body (just 350kg), fuel efficiency reaches an impressive 300mpg. It gives off no exhaust pipe emissions, and, says Riversimple, it’s also a ‘lower carbon’ car than the all-electric G-Wiz. The carbon emissions resulting from generating the electricity used to produce its hydrogen fuel work out, per kilometre, as half as much as those emitted in producing the power for the G-Wiz (30g/km as opposed to over 60g/km).
Riversimple’s lead engineer, former racing car driver Hugo Spowers, describes it as a first attempt at a “sustainable car” in the widest sense. That’s why Urban’s whole design and manufacturing process looks very different to your average car.
Firstly, it’s ‘open source’, which means design blueprints will be freely available for others to improve on. Secondly, the Urban won’t be sold outright, but leased to car sharing companies, local councils and individuals. ‘Sharing’ features, such as card-key door locks, are central to the design. And Spowers hopes to add a swappable dashboard so that different drivers can customise the same car with their own settings and driving stats. He reckons each car will have a 16-year life span, four times the average ‘leasing expectancy’.
Manufacturing will also be local and fairly small-scale. If Spowers is successful in finding the next $32 million in investment, he hopes to establish a site producing around 5,000 cars a year – possibly in Oxford.
Why hydrogen, you might ask. The fuel is not yet produced on a large scale without electricity from fossil fuels, nor is there existing infrastructure. “Hydrogen, in my opinion, is a massively better option [than electric batteries] for a city car,” responds Spowers. He explains that the Urban is not a fuel cell car in the same way as Honda’s Clarity FCX, which replaces a powerful internal combustion engine with a large (and expensive) fuel cell. Instead, it uses a small, 6kW fuel cell – perfectly adequate for the modest flow of power to the four wheelbased electric motors – and a bank of ultracapacitors, charged by a combination of the fuel cell and regenerative braking, to deliver brief bursts of high power for acceleration.
Spowers said Urban’s efficiency and range (200 miles compared with G-Wiz’s 75) mean drivers need refuel only once a week – so one hydrogen station could service scores of cars.
But will drivers be interested in sharing cars? Spowers thinks the idea of individually owned vehicles may be on its way out, especially if fun-to-drive cars like Urban can provide better city mobility. “We’re definitely taking the long view on this one,” he says.
This piece originally appeared in Green Futures. Green Futures is published by Forum for the Future, one of the leading magazines on environmental solutions and sustainable futures. Its aim is to demonstrate that a sustainable future is both practical and desirable – and can be profitable, too.
Photo credit: Flickr/freeparking, Creative Commons License.
Riversimple, Hugo Spowers, Sebastian Piëch along with Oxford and Cranfield universities should be commanded for bringing us the Urban Car. It should be noted, however, that the idea of open source and modular design originated with a second year transportation design student at CCS in the schools 2003 car design competition sponsored by PPG.
Here is what he said back then:
Kafantaris used modular construction because he believes it affords independence and flexibility, much like that in a personal computer, with the main components subsystems from different manufacturers.
"It is feasible to build a hydrogen car this way because its electric motors are integrated in the wheels themselves, without the restrictions of a conventional engine, transmission and central power train," he said. "This allows the car to be partitioned along new lines and, more importantly, assembled with specialty units -- electric motors/hubs, control servos, fuel cells -- supplied by unrelated firms."
Not bad for the then 19 year old Constantine!
In Czech Republic, a hydrogen powered bus using three-way hybrid drive has been put into testing operation. It's powered by fuel cell, ultracapacitors and regenerative braking too. See http://hyfleetcute.com/data/TriHyBus_Overview.pdf Seems to me, electric cars will remain only at a niche market. Hydrogen is the future, in Europe at least.