22 Feb 22

Will Toyota and Yamaha keep combustion engine alive in a hydrogen version?

Yamaha is developing a hydrogen engine for Toyota, based on the eight cylinder built by the Japanese car manufacturer. Apparently, the unit is capable of a staggering 450 PS with only water vapor as its tailpipe emissions. Too good to be true? Are we burying the combustion engine too soon and is running it on hydrogen a possible remedy for a well-known and widely spread technology?

Together with Mazda, Subaru, Kawasaki and Yamaha, Toyota has vowed to keep investing in the combustion engine, even though other OEMs have given it up and even though the company is putting a lot of effort into the development of a new generation fuel cell. The solution then, is to convert the ICE to hydrogen, meaning it is zero-emission and still retains the typical characteristics of a driveline we are all accustomed to. Maybe, the energy transition of our mobility is as simple as that.

Fifteen years ago, when fuel cells were big, costly and less efficient, converted combustion engines seemed a handy solution, easy to produce on an existing assembly line while fueling on an adapted network of stations already in place also seemed to maintain the status quo more or less. BMW and Mazda both had test vehicles.

Low range

The projects were abandoned. Fuel cells became less expensive, and smaller and gradually surpassed an energy efficiency of 50%. Combustion engines on hydrogen never topped 40% (and they never will). For the sake of comparison, a BEV performs twice as well (circa 80%).

On top of that, these hydrogen combustion engines returned a very low range, brought about space-consuming tanks for the fuel carrier being stored as a gas (in a fuel cell vehicle it is tanked as a liquid), and didn’t help to overcome the considerable hurdle of the renewable production.

Even today, 95% of the volume of commercial H2 is generated from unabated fossil fuels, called grey instead of green hydrogen. So, after the math a Toyota Mirai emits some 95 g/km of CO2 and a Hyundai Nexo around 110 g/km. Greenhouse gas emissions of FCEVs are in reality very close to those of ICE cars.

Not meeting expectations

It points to the fact that making hydrogen work as a fuel for the future poses tremendously unrealistic challenges, even for fuel cells. This was illustrated only a couple of months ago. Whilst Toyota keeps investing in multiple forms for H2 propulsion, it was discovered that Hyundai had dismantled its research and development department working on its third generation fuel cell. Even though, the Hyundai Nexo is one of the protagonists in the case for hydrogen use in passenger cars.

The mission of Hyundai’s subdivision of dedicated engineers was to reduce the production cost of its fuel cell and cut the price by half, but it was deemed impossible at this moment.

The next step after this operational freeze remains unclear, but the objectives are far from met. The South-Korean government - and Hyundai - aimed at 80,000 FCEVs on their national roads by the end of this year, that began with a volume of 20,000 units. Both sides are aware that the catch-up won’t happen, even though state incentives result in a discount seeing Nexo’s shift at half their retail price.

FCEVs rise at 82%

Over at Honda, who joined the push towards hydrogen transportation with the now-abandoned FCX Clarity in 2015, CEO Toshihiro Mibe told Automotive News last month that “as for hydrogen engines we see some quite difficult challenges”, adding that he found Toyota’s path to pursue hydrogen combustion “not feasible”. He acknowledged that his company looked into the technology ten years ago, and subsequently dropped it, but that FCEVs on the other hand are not scrapped from their future strategy.   

Another spark of hope is to be found at a market value forecast by analyst company IDTechEx, who announced that global sales of hydrogen cars had risen by no less than 82% year-on-year in 2021. The rate is impressive, the volume is not. While the worldwide market for BEVs rose to 4.6 million units last year, this percentual growth of FCEV cars settles at a total of 15,538 cars. It’s hardly called a niche.

Furthermore, IDTechEx unveiled that Toyota was welcoming its Californian Mirai clients with discounts of 40%. Added to the state and federal incentives this means Mirai’s were shifted with a 65% rebate, almost giving them away.             

Just for the fun of it

Toyota is not unconscious about the extreme market situation and the poor outlook of it. Revealing its own expectations on hydrogen adoption for the passenger car segment, the company said it accounts for a share of no more than 3% in 2030. So, why then bet on feeding this chemical element into a combustion engine?

For a car company like Toyota, much more present in less developed regions all over the world than any other competitor, it makes sense to keep the ICE engine running for a while regardless of the transitional society we live in. But as for the hydrogen option, the comments from the parties involved reveal a lot. Yamaha’s president refers to its hydrogen engine as a way to keep ‘our passion for the combustion engine alive’. At Toyota, voices explain that it appeals to what fans like so much: the noise, the fun, and the speed.

It is hardly a coincidence that the hydrogen engine will be put to work in Japan’s Super Taikyu, which is a race series. So instead of a gamechanger, it seems more a solution for nostalgia covering it in a responsible approach. But it doesn’t stand the slightest chance to surmount the confines of motorsports pleasure.

Images source: Toyota

Authored by: Piet Andries