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Tina Casey headshot

As the Hydrogen Economy Heats Up, This Automaker is Turning to Fuel Cell Cars

By Tina Casey
Hydrogen Economy

The United Kingdom has become a hotbed of research and development aimed at promoting the new hydrogen economy, and it seems that both the iconic Jaguar and Land Rover brands have caught the ripple effect. Last week, the umbrella firm of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) announced plans to introduce hydrogen fuel cell technology into its lineup as part of its ambitious “Reimagine” vehicle electrification plan.

The hydrogen economy, national identity, and branding

JLR has been a wholly owned subsidiary of India’s Tata Motors since 2008, and the company has been determined to hold onto its U.K. brand identity as the global auto market turns to electrification.

Though JLR’s choice of  the word “Reimagine” for its electrification plan suggests more aspiration than action, the fact is that electric vehicle (EV) technology is already maturing. JLR plans to take advantage of the full suite of technology. That includes the emerging area of high-efficiency electric power trains hybridized with internal combustion engines over the near term, leading to 100 percent electrification and a 2039 zero carbon goal down the road.

The challenge will be to market the new technology as an element in the British-style luxury and performance expected of the Jaguar brand, while living up to demands of the active lifestyle associated with the Land Rover brand: That appears to be where hydrogen fuel cell technology comes in.

Hydrogen is an abundant, zero emission fuel that also has numerous applications in agriculture and industry. Until recent years its role in sustainable development was questionable, though, because almost all of the global supply is derived from natural gas.

Renewable hydrogen is finally emerging as a more sustainable alternative. That is the key to unlocking the hydrogen economy, and the U.K. has become a leader in the field.

JLR steps into hydrogen economy

The U.K.’s vast offshore wind and tidal energy resources provide it with a strong advantage in the new green hydrogen economy, with Scotland emerging as a centerpiece of activity. The prospect of an abundant supply of green hydrogen dovetails neatly with JLR’s hydrogen fuel cell car plan.

Last summer Green Car Reports took note of the company’s hydrogen fuel cell activity in the SUV space, with a focus on larger vehicles like the Range Rover.

Apparently, the company is zeroing in on hydrogen fuel cell technology to fill in a gap left by batteries. The law of diminishing returns kicks in where larger vehicles with longer range are concerned, because battery packs weigh more and take up more space. Hydrogen fuel cells offer the prospect of lighter weight and a more compact footprint.

The focus on high end SUVs also helps to resolve a price point issue. Various auto makers have been struggling to introduce fuel cell passenger cars to the market, but consumer interest has lagged while costs have remained stubbornly high.

By focusing on SUVs, JLR has the opportunity to attract customers who are already willing to pay more money to get more car, and who are willing to pay a premium for a top brand.

A secret weapon in the global hydrogen economy

The focus on larger vehicles may also indicate that JLR will leverage the advantages of the global hydrogen economy through its parent company Tata.

The new Reimagine plan envisions ramping up technology collaborations between Tata and Jaguar Land Rover, and Tata already has a head start in that regard.

Though hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars are a tough sell, the technology is attracting business in practically every other transportation sector where range and weight are a concern. That includes locomotives, aircraft, watercraft, long-haul trucks and military vehicles.

One main area of activity is in public buses, and Tata already has a head start in that area, with an assist from leading Indian research organizations.

In 2017 Tata introduced the hydrogen fuel cell “Starbus” for intra-city use, the result of a collaboration between the company and the Indian Space Research Organization, in partnership with India’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

It’s possible that JLR foresees a scaled-down version of the Tata collaboration for its hydrogen fuel cell lineup, though that remains to be seen.

What is clear is that the emerging hydrogen economy has the potential to breathe new life into legacy brands by enabling them to fortify their national identity with a strong dose of sustainable fuel.

Image credit: Land Rover

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey