Riversimple looks to break the Hydrogen Fuel Cell mold

There seems to be no end of new car companies trying to establish themselves as niche players in a seemingly wide-open market for alternati...

There seems to be no end of new car companies trying to establish themselves as niche players in a seemingly wide-open market for alternatively-fueled vehicles. Now a British start-up company backed by some of Germany’s automotive design royalty may be set to break the mold and become one of the few legitimate stand-outs, thanks to an attractive design, clever engineering, a cheap propulsion system and a highly advanced leasing system.

Riversimple is a start-up company headed by Oxford-educated engineer, Hugo Spowers. His team is bolstered by no less than Sebastian Piech, cousin of former VW chairman, Ferdinand Piech, both of whom are the grandchildren of the legendary Ferdinand Porsche. It is this team that is looking to upend the business model of designing, making and then selling cars. Like Toyota, Riversimple is betting that hydrogen fuel cell technology is the future despite the obvious problem of where to get your hydrogen.

“Disruptive technology can only work if it comes with a new business model,” says Spowers, who, in addition to being an entrepreneur, is a lifelong motorsport enthusiast, having fielded a private team in the 1980s. “When someone comes up with a radical new idea, the conversation always turns to why it can’t be done. And generally speaking, many of those reasons are true. But if you’re prepared to throw out the whole context and start again from scratch, all the reasons why something can’t be done just fall away.

“We’ve designed a car around hydrogen fuel cells rather than trying to put fuel cells into cars designed around the internal-combustion engine for the last 100 years,” Spowers added. 

Spowers in Riversimple's Fuel Cell Vehicle.
To put it simply, compressed hydrogen is stored in a pressurised tank mounted at the rear axle. This fuel is then piped to a fuel cell in the front of the car where it is converted into electricity. This then powers four in-hub electric motors which do not need a gearbox as they are direct drive motors.

“There are no moving parts, except for the wheels,” Spowers said. “There’s no metal-to-metal contact, no lubrication required and no mechanical wear.”

Regenerative breaking systems generate additional electricity which is stored in a bank of super-capacitors that can store up to 80% of the vehicle’s required power for normal driving. “That means the fuel cells only need to supply 20% of the power during acceleration,” Spowers explained.

The prototype is a lightweight 520kg with a top cruising speed of about 80kph and a range of about 450 kilometres before it needs to be refueled. Topping up the hydrogen has always been an objection to producing or owning a hydrogen-powered car as, to put it simply, there’s just not enough hydrogen fuel stations available nor will there be until there is enough hydrogen cars on the market to warrant them - a bit of a chicken and egg scenario. Riversimple is hoping that the co-operative agreement they have with a large British liquid hydrogen supplier will get them over this sticking point.

Riversimple won't be selling the car either; they will only be leasing it, likely made available in packaged options the way we do cell phones. The idea is to "establish a business model that rewards longevity and low running costs rather than obsolescence and high running costs”. Curiously, hydrogen is included in that monthly lease fee (early figures suggest £200/month or about US$300).

"Our vision is of a world where our relationship with the car has changed dramatically for the better, with new solutions in place for sustainable and responsible mobility," says Spowers. Yeah, right on! 

image: riversimple.com

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