Closing the Loop: Riversimple's Hydrogen Car

Riversimple's carbon fibre-bodied development car, seen here, is merely a prototype. It will, however, form the basis of a £250-a-month hydrogen fuel cell car that's capable of 200 miles and refuels in just five minutes with zero emissions. Interested? You should be.

Anyone familiar with The Marches, those counties that have historically straddled the Anglo-Welsh border, will vouch for the fact that there are few, if any, greener landscapes in the UK; something that is particularly true in light of this year’s waterlogged summer. It’s also a quiet, rural place where people just get on with whatever they’re up to, chiefly agriculture.

Away from congested urban sprawl and polluted cities, it also seems an appropriate locale in which to base a small company aiming to entirely eliminate the environmental impact of personal transport - evenutally, at least. And that, in the shadow of a large granary that backs onto Shobdon Aerodrome, is exactly what Hugo Spowers and his company Riversimple are steadily accomplishing.

Spowers, an Oxford Engineering Science graduate, has a history in the manufacture of single-seater racing cars and more recently with the hydrogen-powered LIFECar, a collaboration between Riversimple and Morgan. Currently his efforts are focused on securing the next level of investment for a production successor to Riversimple’s prototype fuel-cell car, the peculiar looking but strangely lovable car you see here.

The prototype itself uses four in-wheel electric motors served by a 6kW hydrogen fuel cell in the front and ultracapacitors situated behind the driver (144 to be precise, which were being replaced at the time of these photos hence the raised rear). The electric motors also work in a regenerative capacity whereby electricity used for acceleration can be partially recovered and sent back to the ultracapacitors under braking, although they can also be charged from the fuel cell. Riversimple call this arrangement a Network Electric platform, and it’s an integral part of Spowers’ philosophy as it allows the car the same acceleration with a fuel cell 80% less powerful as the ultracapacitors bear that particular burden.

“The industry has built numerous fuel cell prototypes, and they are brilliant bits of engineering, but to put fuel cells into cars designed for combustion engines, you have to persuade them to behave like combustion engines,” he argues, “and they don’t do it very well!” There’s no doubt this is true, Mercedes’ F-Cell, to name but one, is a real feat of engineering. But it’s not enough - cars like the Honda FCX Clarity are expensive to run and hampered by production costs. By designing a fuel cell car from the ground up it allows engineers to work with the characteristics of fuel cells, including their key weaknesses, by eliminating the need for great power density (needed for high speed motorway driving, for example). This will most likely occur, at least Riversimple certainly believe, in smaller unconstrained start-ups rather than the established automotive giants, but that’s another story altogether.

Aside from a resourceful powertrain, the production vehicle will bear little aesthetic resemblance to this prototype. A carbon fibre body will remain, although the weight of 370kg will increase marginally, principally because of safety regulations concerning the thickness of panels. Riversimple really are leaving no stone unturned, and the car will also featue optimised rubber to reduce friction. Spowers himself averages over 85mpg in his own imported three-litre Audi A2, and it’s the same cocktail of lightweight aluminium, a low drag coefficient and worryingly narrow tyres.

When people buy cars performance is something that weighs heavily on their minds. Not ‘performance’ as it has colloquially come to be known – as something only sports cars possess – but as a set of parameters that a car has to surpass as not to have a detrimental effect on one’s lifestyle. The prototype, or technology demonstrator as Riversimple refer to it, has a top speed of 50mph on paper, quite enough for short journeys (although the latest version of the powertrain is not quite there yet), and a range of 240 miles. The production car will have a similar range that can be replenished in less than five minutes from a hydrogen filling station; so the ‘performance’ is there.

One of Spowers’ arguments concerns the critical mass of infrastructure required for hydrogen to ‘take-off’, and it’s a convincing one. The UK’s hydrogen infrastructure is currently in its infancy - the first public hydrogen filling station, subsidized by Honda, opened barely a year ago and since then progress has been slow to say the least. So who’s going to buy an expensive fuel cell car with an ICE-rivaling range of 350 miles but access to precious few refueling facilities? It’s a good question, and Riversimple’s answer is to target society on a local level rather than a national one. Simply put, for local use the critical mass to create a commecial market is only one filling station, whereas if the car were aimed at motorway speeds the critical mass would have to be nationwide coverage before anyone would buy the car.

So, with a range of over 200 miles (more than a week’s fuel for a local car) Riversimple believe that they can create a commercial market from a solitary filling station, as they will target customers for a local means of transport from the off, and not as a longer ranged (but severely hindered) rival to conventional cars. The ball is now well and truly rolling, too, with an urban trial in Leicester and a rural one in the picturesque countryside surrounding the company’s headquarters. The benefits of starting in a localized setup are apparent – not only is the car faster to refuel as it has a smaller tank, but Riversimple can also offer excellent customer support and the investment case for gas suppliers is stronger, as all the cars are concentrated around one filling station. The counterargument is that by reducing range you negate hydrogen’s greatest advantage over electric cars, range itself, but the fuel cell cars are still lighter, more fun, quicker to fill up and, importantly, cheaper.

If successful at first, more fuel stations could then be built further afield, each time unlocking another increment of commercial market until the network is quite large and Riversimple, amongst other companies (the technology is open sourced), could build cars with a greater range. The important thing is that the network growth would be self-sustaining as its existence would be a result of consumer uptake rather than speculative investment. Riversimple will look after the car’s servicing and upkeep, even paying for fuel, until the contract ends and the car can be refurbished or updated if necessary for subsequent customers. The company has high aspirations, too, with a planned output of 2,000 units per annum at first. Production will come from a number of smaller plants as the optimal scale of production with carbon fibre (as opposed to steel) is around 5,000 units per annum.

Riversimple’s business plan is the opposite of conventional car companies, who would have you replace your car every three or four years. Some would even argue that it is in their interest to manufacture cars that don’t stand the test of time as their business model relies on selling newer cars. The idea is to sell the service to customer, rather than the cars themselves, and Riversimple estimate that on a two-year contract the total cost of ownership would be similar to that of a Smart Car. As someone mentioned, where else can you pay a monthly fee of £250-300 to drive something with similar levels of technological innovation to a McLaren F1? This leasing strategy is also essential to Riversimple’s ‘cradle to cradle’ mission to make their cars 100% ecologically sound – no car should ever end up on the scrapheap. So fervent is Spowers’ belief in total ecological responsibility that it’s unlikely that the cars will even be painted. “Technically you can recover 85% of paint by weight a the moment, but you can’t close the loops,” he says, explaining that they may have to resort to optically impregnated carbon fibre. Naked carbon fibre isn’t for everyone, it seems.

Riversimple’s assertion is that new technologies need a chance to develop. Expect too much of them and you’ll never be satisfied – complex science needs time to mature. Spowers’ poignantly analogizes the case of hydraulic diggers – post-WWII they couldn’t compete with draglines and few were willing to invest in them. Then the council house market boomed and provided a basis for the technology to develop and improve rapidly. Now draglines, in commercial use since 1904, are all but redundant. Technology has to move on.

Spowers believes it’s time for change. “Modern motor cars, I think, are utterly, brilliant,” he concedes, “but they are the most refined and mature technology we’ve ever had on the planet, and incremental improvements to be gained are tiny. We’re squabbling over the last 1%”, and this is very much the crux of it. Look closely and you’ll see that fuel economy hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years – it’s again time for a radical change.

“We’ve been optimizing for 80 years now and this is not an optimization, it’s a step change. I think we’ll look back in 10 years and see how extraordinary the rate of change has been”.

Horse, meet motorcar. Motorcar, meet fuel cell.

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