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“Fuel cells gain traction especially in commercial vehicles”

Interviews |
By Christoph Hammerschmidt

eeNews Europe: The market for fuel cell vehicle drives is currently experiencing a dynamic development. How is this technology developing?

Wolfgang Neu: The current dynamic phase began five years ago, when a number of OEMs in Europe turned their attention to this topic more intensively again – primarily Daimler and VW, but also US companies such as GM and Ford. In the last two to three years, this dynamic has intensified considerably. Some large tier-one suppliers have entered the market by buying up start-up companies. An important example is Bosch, which then bought into Nikola Motors. In addition, there have been a few mergers in France – with the result that the start-up scene has cleaned up. This has shifted the focus to the Tier Ones.

Through our cooperation with OEMs such as Audi, Daimler, Volkswagen and others, we know that serious development work is now being done on series production projects. We ourselves are in the process of developing a Cell Voltage Monitoring System (CVM) series electronics for a large Tier One. The dynamics can also be seen in our sales curve – we estimate that this year we will generate a good 50 percent more sales in this product area than in the previous year.

I estimate that all the well-known Tier Ones have now really positioned themselves in the fuel cell sector, and Bosch is probably the most involved. This applies both to the investment volume and the speed of development. I think we will see the first series solutions on the market as early as next year, even if they are still in small quantities.

Truck industry finds fuel cell drives increasingly attractive

eeNews Europe:  Does this mean that the corresponding vehicles are already on the road? Or that only the drives are available ready for series production?

Neu: I expect the first vehicles to hit the road next year, albeit still as pre-series vehicles. However, the industry is currently undergoing a reorientation. The current developments are moving in the direction of trucks; the large OEMs have now very uniformly decided to push the battery in the passenger car sector and rely on the fuel cell in the commercial vehicle sector, because very large batteries would be needed in the higher performance and weight classes. These would then be very expensive and, secondly, large and heavy. But the commercial vehicle market is not quite as price-sensitive as the passenger car market, and a long range is also important there. For these reasons, truck and utility vehicle manufacturers are becoming more involved in the development of fuel cells. We are involved in several development projects and also supply test bench measurement technology for the systems currently under development. However, these systems are still a long way from market launch.


eeNews Europe: Let’s stay briefly with passenger cars. In the Far East, developments towards series production can be observed. Some of these cars can already be bought in Europe – they may not be affordable for everyone, but they are available. Isn’t there a danger that the European car industry will be left behind?

Neu: In fact, Toyota and Hyundai have already been on the market with fuel cell cars for several years. Although the number of units is very low, Hyundai is currently experiencing very strong international growth in the fuel cell sector. Hyundai has also completed a project with the Swiss government. They will deliver 1000 trucks for the Swiss Postal Service and will start this project already this year.

Korea, Japan lead the industry

The two fuel cell cars from Japan and Korea show that there is a high potential for this technology in Asia. By the way, Honda has also developed such a vehicle and is likely to launch it soon, and GM is now using Honda’s technology. This puts Japan and Korea in the lead, China doesn’t seem to be quite so far ahead – I still see them well behind the Europeans when it comes to developing their own solutions.

eeNews Europe: What impact do these market activities have on the development and testing of fuel cells?

Neu: We as a company originally come from the field of fuel cell measurement technology. We have our own product line of CVMs. These are systems that monitor the individual cells in a fuel cell drive system to optimize the performance and lifetime of the stack. For this purpose, a CVM system observes the state of the stack and thus enables the implementation of an operation strategy that serves to extend the lifetime of the stack. This type of cell measurement technology is primarily available at test benches. Practically all relevant test bench manufacturers use our systems. However, we also supply to the manufacturers of fuel cell systems. In this respect we are represented wherever fuel cell stacks are developed and tested.

We can see that the demand for such systems has grown significantly in recent years and is set to grow strongly again this year. We also supply companies who develop the actual energy supply system for the vehicle from this stack by adding further components such as compressors or electronic units etc. And last but not least, we are dealing with the vehicle manufacturers who integrate this energy supply system into the drive train of their vehicles. So we serve partners along the entire supply chain.

Cell monitoring systems will enter the vehicles

eeNews Europe: Will your test equipment ultimately be integrated into the vehicles? After all, fuel cell management is also required in the cars themselves.

Neu: In the past, we have almost always sold directly to OEMs – they have equipped their test benches with them. But we also see a trend that the manufacturers of fuel cell stacks are increasingly approaching us because they no longer need our products only for test benches and test vehicles, but as a component of the series electronics. And we are currently in the process of developing the first such series electronics for a large Tier One.


eeNews Europe: So your company is moving up the food chain?

Neu: Our customers have so far seen us as a supplier of measurement technology – but a measurement technology that over the years has become more and more automotive-compliant, i.e. in such a way that it is actually installed in the vehicle – with an extended temperature range, high-voltage protection, leakage testing, etc. Our modular measuring systems have also developed more and more towards automotive compatibility.

Apart from this, the simulation of cell voltages is also becoming an important field of activity. We have recently concluded a cooperation with the company MicroNova, which has been an important player in the field of HiL systems for many years. Together with them we are developing fuel cell HiL systems – an area where we have already gained experience together with Siemens. The cell voltage simulation is an important component in these HiL systems, because in order to operate a control unit designed for fuel cells, this multi-channel cell voltage must also be provided. In the test, this voltage does not come from a real fuel cell stack, but from a simulated one.

eeNews Europe:  When you say multi-channel, what order of magnitude does one have to imagine?

Neu: In the passenger car sector we typically see 300 – 400 cells, in commercial vehicles 500 – 600 cells. This results in system voltages of up to 1000 V.

eeNews Europe: Which technology will be more widespread in, say, five years: battery electric drive or fuel cell?

Neu: Definitely battery drives, because this technology has at least five to eight years of lead in development. At the moment, the industry is only just beginning to make fuel cells suitable for use in vehicles and suitable for series production. Of course, there are already systems that run in vehicles, but nothing is really ready for mass production. It will take at least another five to eight years before fuel cell vehicles can be produced in really large numbers. By then we will have seen very large quantities of battery systems.

More information: https://www.smart-testsolutions.de/en/

Related articles:

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Study: CO2 reduction targets require diversity in drive technology

Toyota sends fuel cell trucks into practical test

Bosch resolutely advocates hydrogen drive

Daimler Truck steps on the gas in fuel cell series production

 


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