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Hydrogen builds in 2020

In an era when the very essence of what a car interior is – how it feels, looks and operates – is rapidly changing, it can be tricky to visualise what we will be sitting in by 2030. But there is never any shortage of concept cars on display around the world’s major car shows that give us a glimpse of what the future might hold. While some concepts are more out there than others, Matthew Beecham, associate editor of just-auto, highlights some common themes emerging, such as greater use of multi-screens, all-digital dashboards, personalisation and connectivity.

Expect to hear much more about hydrogen technology and automotive applications in 2020. Is it expensive? Very. But there is a growing consensus inside the industry that applications are getting closer and there will be an expanding niche for hydrogen-powered vehicles.  

Hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles at present cost four or five times more to produce than equivalent battery-powered electric vehicles, due mainly to a lack of economies of scale in the production of fuel-cells. However, unit costs will fall as volumes rise. 

Keep an eye on developments in South Korea. The country is aiming to be a significant participant in hydrogen energy use. Seoul has identified the "hydrogen economy" as a key source of future economic growth for the country and as fundamental in achieving its long-term CO2 emissions reduction targets.  Local carmaker Hyundai is one of the global leaders in hydrogen fuel cell technology and will benefit from a strong domestic market. 

Hyundai plans to sell 560,000 electric and 110,000 hydrogen cars annually by 2025

The South Korean government plans to build a network of 310 hydrogen charging stations across the country by 2022 to help encourage growth the adoption of hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicle (FCEV) technology. The Korean government is speeding up the roll-out of refuelling stations for FCEVs, with 260 charging stations expected to be operational in major cities within three years and a further 60 located on major expressways. By the end of 2019 it plans to have 86 refuelling stations in place nationwide.

The South Korean government expects there will be 67,000 hydrogen FCEVs in use in the country by 2022, consuming a combined 30,000 tonnes of hydrogen per year. It wants these vehicles to be within 15 minutes' drive from charging stations to make them more attractive to buyers.

Hyundai plans to sell 560,000 electric and 110,000 hydrogen cars annually by 2025, with South Korea, US, China and Europe expected to become mass markets for electric and battery-powered vehicles by 2030.

Hyundai is involved in a number of eye-catching hydrogen initiatives. In Europe, it has launched operations at its new Hyundai Hydrogen Mobility (HMM) joint venture with Swiss hydrogen company H2 Energy, which will target growth opportunities in Europe's commercial vehicle market. Gosgen, Switzerland based HMM aims to sell 1,600 hydrogen powered trucks locally and in other markets in Europe by 2025.

Hyundai Motor and US diesel engine manufacturer Cummins have also signed a preliminary agreement to explore opportunities to collaborate in the development and supply of hydrogen fuel cell powertrains. The initial plan is to jointly develop and commercialise fuel cell powertrains by combining Hyundai's fuel cell systems expertise with Cummins' electric powertrain, battery and control technologies.

Initial development will focus on the North American commercial vehicle market including working with OEMs on the integration of the new powertrains into their vehicles.

Mercedes combines hydrogen with PHEV powertrain

Daimler is also emerging as a vehicle maker that is serious about hydrogen. Daimler researchers have been working on fuel cell technology since the 1980s and Mercedes-Benz has now launched an electric vehicle featuring hydrogen fuel cell and conventional plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV) battery technology. The Mercedes-Benz GLC F-Cell is described as a 'unique plug-in hybrid' as apart from electricity it can also run on pure hydrogen. In 2020 we may well hear more about the company's plans to commercialise the technology and take it to higher volumes. 

 Mercedes says the powertrain set-up for the vehicle is unique as it features both fuel cells and a battery drive which can be charged externally using plug-in technology. Alongside various national and regional ministries as well as the National Organisation Hydrogen (NOW) and H2 Mobility, the first customers in the German market include Deutsche Bahn, the German national railway operator. 

Mercedes says that together with its partners in the H2 Mobility joint venture, Daimler has drawn up a plan of action for more hydrogen fuel stations in Germany. By the end of 2019, the hydrogen refuelling station network is expected to grow from its current level of 50 to some 100 stations. The long-term objective of the partners is a network of up to 400 hydrogen refuelling stations. Similar infrastructure projects are being promoted in Europe, the USA and Japan. 

Michelin and Faurecia form hydrogen joint venture 

In another key development for Europe, Michelin and Tier 1 supplier Faurecia have formed a joint venture using an existing company name, Symbio, combining their hydrogen fuel cell dedicated operations and aiming, they said, to be "a world leader in hydrogen mobility". Look out for more on this in 2020.  

The JV will develop, produce and market hydrogen fuel cell systems for light vehicles, commercial vehicles and "other areas of electromobility". Faurecia brings to the partnership its technological hydrogen mobility expertise and results of R&D work carried out with the CEA (the French Atomic Energy Commission).  

Michelin contributes knowledge of its Symbio subsidiary which supplies hydrogen fuel cell kits and offers design and production services. The two will invest an initial EUR140m in the JV to speed development of new generation fuel cells, launch mass production and increase business in Europe, China and the United States. 

Symbio wants to achieve 25% market share and a turnover of around EUR1.5bn by 2030. The joint venture will operate from three factories supplying Europe, Asia and the United States. 

The pair said electric mobility demand was expected to increase significantly between now and 2030 with hydrogen powered vehicles accounting for 2m vehicles of which 350,000 would be trucks. 

"As the only zero emission solution that complements battery powered electric cars, hydrogen technology is essential in accelerating the deployment of electromobility and addressing its three major challenges: improving air quality, reducing CO2 emissions and the energy transition," they said in a statement. 

Mirrorless cars use video systems and dashboard screens to increase the driver’s field of view, typically eliminating the blind spot by stitching together a panoramic view of what is behind and to the side of the car.

Material-wise, we are seeing more centre console screens made of flat and curved glass. Although the use of glass for touchscreens creates a classy look, this illusion is soon shattered by smudgy fingerprints. The HMI (human machine interface) therefore needs greater refinement before glass screens become widespread. Glass screens do not currently provide the user with haptic feedback, causing driver distraction when double-checking activation of functions.

Another reason tomorrow’s car interiors could see more screens is the gradual disappearance of the exterior rearview mirror. Given that wing mirrors add weight, cost and wind resistance (at high speeds) to the car, it is not surprising that some automakers wish to eliminate them thereby creating a sleeker look. As suppliers anticipate a change to mirror regulations, many are developing mirrorless systems using vehicle mounted cameras and dashboard monitors.

Mirrorless cars use video systems and dashboard screens to increase the driver’s field of view, typically eliminating the blind spot by stitching together a panoramic view of what is behind and to the side of the car. Although mirrorless cars will take time to get used to, most solutions we have seen feature high-resolution screens located close to where a driver would glance to check the wing mirror. Some mirrorless technologies assist the driver further by automatically adjusting to reduce sunlight glare or intensifying levels of brightness while parking at night.

With future trends pointing to the elimination of wing mirrors and the addition of screens, such black rectangles can dominate the look and feel of a car’s interior. It has even been disputed as appearing a little dated; the opposite of a luxury interior designer’s objective. To some extent, flexible OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays that blend into the interior can help (see below). A balance therefore needs to be struck. Greater use of projecting driver information onto head-up displays (HUDs) and augmented reality windscreens would further reduce dashboard screens.

More screens, fewer buttons (Range Rover Velar).

Renault adds hydrogen light commercial vans for 2020

Renault will unveil its Kangoo ZE and Master ZE hydrogen vehicles in 2020. The French automaker says the hydrogen fuel cell provides additional energy for up to three times more range than 100% electric vehicles with a charging time of five to 10 minutes.

Tested since 2014, Groupe Renault's hydrogen technology was developed in partnership with Symbio, a Groupe Michelin subsidiary. The vehicles are equipped with a range extender fuel cell providing electric and thermal power of 10 kW, increasing the range of the Master and Kangoo hydrogen vehicles to more than 350 km.


Expected in first-half 2020, the Master ZE Hydrogen will triple the range from 120 km to 350 km and will be available in van (two versions) and chassis cab (two versions). From the end of 2019, Renault maintains the Kangoo ZE Hydrogen will have the best real-life range of any electric van on the market at 370km (vs 230 km WLTP with Kangoo ZE).

Renault maintains that hydrogen electric light commercial vehicles are particularly suitable for the intensive needs and uses of professionals in large urban areas up to the periphery of cities: transport and logistics, urban deliveries and multi-technical services, municipal and local authority services, express and special mail. 

Voice recognition

While giving instructions in our cars is nothing new, putting questions to the likes of Alexa and Cortana while on the road is. Automakers are fast adopting virtual assistants, confirming that speech is becoming the preferred interface for tomorrow’s cockpit.

Voice recognition is seen by some as the answer to eliminate many controls that have traditionally been manually operated. Voice can play an important part of a multimodal HMI solution for inputting information or for cutting through layers on the menus by requesting a function directly. Traditional voice control was centred on a set of fixed commands with catatonic responses which required some level of driver training prior to operation of the system. With the advent of the new low power, high performance microprocessors, smarter voice command engines linked into the HMI logic are now available. Even natural language and grammatical analysis are becoming more achievable.

Voice recognition, although already an option, looks set to play a bigger role as cars gradually become more autonomous.

If in doubt, ask: Microsoft’s Cortana AI system forms part of BMW’s Connected Car vision.

Gesture recognition

Looking down at a touchscreen (without haptic feedback) can be distracting. Gesture recognition is therefore said to be the Next Big Thing, regarded as the logical next step from touchscreens and buttons. Gesture control operates via a stereo camera within the cabin that can recognise certain hand movements for pre-programmed adjustments and functions. Rotating your finger clockwise at a screen could turn up the volume or a finger gesture could answer or decline a call. While such novelties will make life simpler for the driver, it should also simplify interior design and liberate space for storage options.

Interior lighting trends

Advances have also been made in the interior lighting department. Not so long ago, interior lighting consisted of central and side headliner lights, complemented by low-level ambient lighting located mainly in the cockpit area. Today, the accent has changed, thanks to widespread use of LEDs enabling personalisation of car interiors. For example, during night time driving, the Mercedes-Benz E-Class takes on an entirely different feel thanks to the ambient interior LED lighting that can be personalised using a palette of no fewer than 64 colours. It really does start to feel like a cockpit, adding illuminating highlights to the trim, the central display, the front stowage compartment on the centre console, handle recesses, door pockets, front and rear footwells, overhead control panel and mirror triangle.

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