Is Audi breaking ranks with VW Group over hydrogen strategy?

Luxury brand says it’s reviving its hydrogen car plans despite VW pushing electrics

 The Audi A7 h-tron concept plug-in hydrogen hybrid  at the LA Auto Show’s in 2014. Photograph:   Getty Images

The Audi A7 h-tron concept plug-in hydrogen hybrid at the LA Auto Show’s in 2014. Photograph: Getty Images


Audi may be turning against VW Group doctrine on next-generation powertrains, by re-affirming its commitment to hydrogen power. Audi has previously shown concept cars and prototypes powered by hydrogen fuel cells, but in a recent statement, brand chairperson Bram Schot said that Audi will ramp up its efforts in the hydrogen sphere.

“We really want to speed it up,” Schot said in an interview. “We are going to put more priority into hydrogen fuel cells – more money, more capacity of people and more confidence.”

That does seem to fly in the face of VW Group orthodoxy though. Indeed, it seems to have come as a shock to some within Audi. Autocar journalist Greg Kable told The Irish Times that: “Schot told journalists fuel cells appeared superior to EVs at Geneva. One of the PRs told me he almost fell off his chair when he heard it. It was totally off script, but not off record . . . ”


Just as Audi was announcing its renewed hydrogen intentions, Volkswagen’s Maik Stephan was giving a presentation at the Electronomous future vehicle tech conference in Killarney. In that presentation, Stephan – VW’s group strategy director – pointed out that battery electric vehicles (BEVs) are significantly more efficient than hydrogen fuel cell vehicles (FCEVs), from a point of view of the amount of energy input needed for each journey.

According to Stephan’s presentation, with current technology, BEV battery cars need an input of about 184Wh/km, whereas the figure for a fuel cell is 494Wh/km. For a fuel cell plug-in hybrid (which also uses a lithium battery for short journeys) that figure falls to 333Wh/km.

“Volkswagen realises that there is a huge challenge ahead. Volkswagen Group’s passenger cars contribute 1 per cent of all transport-related Co2 emissions, and there’s another one per cent if you include the emissions from our trucks and buses. We understand that, and have decided to do something about that. We have decided to point the company in a new direction.”

That direction appears to be entirely electric. Stephan reiterated its commitment to being completely Co2 neutral, in production and sales, by 2050. To do that, he said, the company will have to build its last internal-combustion engined vehicle by 2040, given that the average life cycle of a new car is about 10 years.

“We will start developing our last ‘conventional’ engines and platforms in the next five to six years” said Stephan. When it comes to electric cars, Stephan said: “The plan is to build 15 million cars on the [all-electric] MEB platform in the next five years. The versions with the largest battery packs will have a WLTP range of up to 550km.”

New hatchback

Stephan went beyond that, though, averring that the new ID hatchback, VW’s first purpose-built all-electric car, which launches later this year, will be Co2-neutral when the first one is handed over to its customer.

“We will also work on battery production techniques and recycling to ensure that the ID’s entire life cycle will be Co2-neutral.” Stephan did admit that, in the early days of the ID’s production, it will be necessary to cancel out some of its factory emissions by using carbon offset schemes.

How all of that will gel with Audi’s resurgent love for hydrogen power remains unknown for now. While hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, it’s currently difficult and expensive to produce and distribute commercially, and most of the hydrogen currently in industrial use is actually a byproduct of the petro-chemical industry.

While companies such as Toyota, General Motors, Hyundai, Honda, Shell, and others have promised to help build up a hydrogen refuelling network, it’s an expensive and labour-intensive undertaking.

More so than creating a proper pan-European electric car fast-charging network? It’s an arguable point, but which of the two now-apparently divergent views of the VW Group are we supposed to believe?

“We need to have a master plan” said Stephan. “We need to work hand-in-hand, rather than finger-pointing.” He may have been talking about all carmakers and all stakeholders in the zero-emissions economy. But he may also have been talking about the internal politics of the VW Group.