Road Test: Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro-e Hydrogen

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25th August 2022

After the proposed 2030 ban on new petrol and diesel vehicles, options are a bit limited. However, there is a lot of potential for hydrogen to make a play what looks set to be a market dominated by batteries and electric motors. John Kendall samples one of the future contenders.

While vehicle manufacturers now face a series of closing dates for when they can sell fossil-fuel powered vehicles, the battery electric alternative inevitably has its limitations. For van operators involved in local operations, battery electric power will provide enough range for daily operations while providing sufficient payload.

That is not going to be the case for all van operators though. Some fleets cover very high mileages each year and the time taken to rapid charge during the day could be difficult to accommodate. There is an alternative possibility though, simply by producing electrical energy in a different way.

The hydrogen fuel cell has been under development for many years by vehicle manufacturers – it’s one of those technologies that has seemed to be permanently 20 years away. I first saw a hydrogen fuel-cell prototype van – a Mercedes-Benz MB100 in the mid 1990s. The fuel cell took up the entire load space of the van at the time. I drove a hydrogen fuel cell-powered vehicle for the first time around 20 years ago.

The advantage is that instead of a large and heavy battery pack, a fuel cell needs a supply of hydrogen gas and air which, when mixed in the fuel cell can produce electricity. Just like the internal combustion engine, development is an ongoing process. Critics rightly point to the system’s relative lack of efficiency compared with batteries. Set against that, a fuel cell’s hydrogen tanks can be re-fuelled in a matter of minutes, just like a petrol or diesel powered-vehicle.

At the moment, the fuel cell is likely to be the power source of choice for long distance trucks, buses and coaches because of the convenience of rapid re-fuelling. That will also appeal to van fleets that cover high daily distances.

Stellantis has been working on fuel-cell-powered variants of its mid-sized models – Citroën ë-Dispatch, Peugeot e-Expert and Opel/Vauxhall Vivaro-e for a few years. No doubt there will be a Fiat Scudo variant in time too. The small scale production of these vehicles – the company will produce around 20 a week initially – will take place at the former Opel Rüsselsheim plant near Frankfurt.

Balancing power output, cost and range, Stellantis has opted for a 45kW fuel cell system to feed a 100kW (peak output) electric motor driving the front wheels. The van is a conversion of the battery electric variant. The battery pack normally housed under the floor has been removed and replaced with three large gas cylinders made from composite material and storing hydrogen gas at 700 bar. The three tanks will carry a total of 4.4kg of hydrogen gas. To back it up and balance the relatively low power output of the fuel-cell system, Stellantis has basically lifted the battery system from its petrol hybrid cars and installed that under the cab seats. This provides an additional 10.5kWh of battery storage with peak power of 90kW, extending total range by up to 31 miles.

Another advantage is that it produces no noxious emissions, just water vapour. For the van, this is partially recycled because the system works best with moist intake air. The rest is simply exhausted. It’s not all good news for the environment though. Water vapour is the most abundant greenhouse gas in the atmosphere by both weight and volume and therefore contributes to the Greenhouse Effect and global warming.

That said, its effects are short-lived. Unlike other greenhouse gases, it will dissipate in a few days, whereas carbon dioxide and methane take far longer to break down.

Accommodating the fuel cell stack, drive motor, inverters etc under the bonnet of the Vivaro/Dispatch/Expert is a bit of a packaging challenge and one reason why the output of the fuel cell stack has been limited. It’s a bit of a tight fit. That said it’s a neat fit. The hydrogen tanks fit tidily under the load floor – fuel cell variants will only be available in L2 and L3 lengths, offering load volumes of 4.8m3 and 6.1m3 respectively, the same as all other L2 and L3 variants. All models will offer a payload of 1,000kg and towing capacity of 1,000kg.

Refuelling infrastructure is at an early stage yet. In the UK there are just 10 hydrogen refuelling stations currently in operation with a further five planned. Central southern England, the south-west beyond Swindon and Wales have no coverage yet, but this will obviously develop as time progresses. There are currently approximately 200 refuelling points in the EU, mostly in Germany with a target of reaching 2,500 by 2030.

The Stellantis van will be the first LCV FCEV (Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle) on the market in Europe and sales could begin in the UK by next year.

ON THE ROAD

Since the fuel cell is just another way of producing electricity, it’s not much of a surprise to find that the FCEV variant of the Vivaro is a lot like driving the battery electric version. The controls and dashboard are the same except for an indication of remaining hydrogen capacity. The van has the same three operating modes: Normal, Eco and Power the transmission selector is the same and there is the B button to boost regenerative braking (feeding the hybrid battery pack that you’re sitting on). The only hint that there is something different is the two-seater cab. Because the battery pack impedes a through loading bulkhead, the option has been removed and the middle seat is replaced with a centre console providing additional storage space.

There is perhaps a bit more high frequency whine from the drive system, but any reduction in power compared with the Vivaro-e is well masked. It is as straightforward and pleasant to drive as the battery electric model and can be loaded and unloaded in just the same way. Once the fuelling infrastructure has expanded, range anxiety is not likely to be a problem, particularly with the prospect of re-fuelling in three minutes.

The unanswered question at the moment is price. No-one at the vehicle launch was discussing how much the system is going to cost but a limited production sophisticated piece of engineering is not going to be cheap. As volumes increase, which they will, things will change and we are likely to see prices come down. Watch this space.

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