Should one technology be backed over another?

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Chris Mason, CEO at FISITA, discusses differing approaches to sustainable mobility, and whether current circumstances are stifling engineering innovation. 

For far too long, new breakthrough ideas and upcoming pioneering technologies have been viewed within a narrow bandwidth. A bandwidth that paradoxically serves to stifle and sometimes kill the innovation that comes from those breakthrough ideas and technologies. Far too often it’s a case of one new idea or single technology being pitted against another new idea or technology; a competition in which only one can win, and the winner takes all. History is littered with such examples, be they automotive or non-automotive.

I started giving this ‘innovation-destroying conundrum’ some thought when I noticed at a recent industry event that the same discussion had reignited, just at the time the industry is shifting away from the IC engine (ICE).

Just about every car maker, supplier and startup (at least in the automotive space) is focusing on sustainable mobility. And that’s how it should be – everyone has the right to breathe clean air.

The wonderful thing about our industry’s incredible technological and engineering advances is that there are numerous options in play that can help make that sustainable mobility dream – transport that is emissions-free from at least the powertrain/tailpipe perspective – a reality. Yet I fear that in our blinkered pursuit of this utopia, we as a wider automotive community have lost sight of that point.

On the one hand, we have the battery-electric vehicle (BEV) movement, which continues to go from strength to strength and is now being widely seen as the successor to the combustion engine. Of course, BEVs are not without their shortcomings (a ‘dirty’ national grid, for example, equates to a ‘dirty’ BEV) but all-electric powertrains represent a huge and logical leap in the right direction to achieving sustainable mobility.

On the other hand, we have the hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) supporters. This community has a longer-term vision but its fundamental outlook essentially makes the case that the mobility panacea is transport that emits just water vapor.

Yet before BEVs have even come close to surpassing ICEs (and let’s all take a moment to admit that the humble petrol and diesel motor will still be around – and be the primary transport power provider – for a long time yet) there are support groups, agendas, committees and associations pushing hydrogen to the fore while simultaneously hacking into electric. By the way, that relationship cuts both ways: I’ve also been privy to comments from people in the BEV camp belittling the impact FCEVs can/will have, taking every opportunity to highlight challenges such as hydrogen tech cost, safety and infrastructure.

But such are the ingenuity, innovation and pioneering R&D of the automotive industry that there can be more than one powertrain technology solution to take the place of ICEs, helping to shift mobility into a truly green and sustainable space. Hydrogen can work alongside electric. A residential road in Germany in 2035 can be home to 70% BEVs and 30% FCEVs or vice versa. There doesn’t need to be a ‘winner takes all’ arms race between the two camps developing these competing technologies.

In fact, just that term alone – competing – is wrong; let’s settle on complementary technologies, because an FCEV is, after all, just another form of electric vehicle.

I predict that in the not-too-distant future, some people’s transport and mobility needs will be met by all-electric powertrains (probably communities living in large urban areas); others will suit hydrogen power much better (probably people living in rural and countryside areas).

The transition from ICE to BEV will be the first stage to achieving true sustainable mobility – and this will take place throughout this decade. And then FCEVs will join BEVs, meeting market demand in places that the latter struggles with, likely from 2033 onward.

Automotive engineers are at the vanguard of innovation so, who knows, by 2033 there might even be additional complementary solutions to BEVs and FCEVs. But for the time being, as they work on these wonderful technologies that will give everyone the right to breathe clean air, let’s not suppress the innovation of our engineers by backing one technology over another.

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About Author

With over 36 years of experience, Chris Mason has a developed understanding of the evolving mobility sector, offering a wealth of knowledge and insight into some of the biggest challenges and opportunities faced today. Overseeing the extensive modernization of FISITA, Chris facilitates member-led events and working groups around the world, promoting discussion and collaboration between expert peer groups to create industry-leading reports. He offers a global, unbiased voice across the spectrum of mobility technology and innovation, identifying key industry developments.

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