The unofficial theme of the 2016 Detroit auto show, which is open to the public through January 24, is the return of old-school big luxury sedans, such as the Lincoln Continental. Yet, Audi’s world debut of its h-tron quattro concept reveals how the auto industry is also preparing for a hydrogen-powered future.
“It’s more than experimentation. It’s a concept, but you can drive it,” said Siegfried Pint, Audi’s head of development for electrified powertrain, from the sidelines of the Detroit show. “The h-tron represents our fifth generation of fuel cells already. We want be there [with hydrogen cars] if the obstacles are overcome.” Competing automakers have differing opinions about how soon fuel cell cars should arrive on US roads. Toyota, for example, is already selling its Mirai fuel-cell car, which was on display in Detroit. Lexus, the company’s luxury division—which presented its impressive Lexus LF-LC hydrogen sedan concept in Detroit—is expected to offer an upscale fuel-cell sedan in about 2020.
Regardless of relative assessments of the timeline, most car companies are making big investments in fuel cell development and exploring how various vehicle platforms can accommodate a hydrogen-based powertrain. The Audi h-tron is built on the same flexible MLB evo platform—often described as toolkit—as its 300-mile all-electric e-tron crossover (expected in 2018).
“When we started, we already had in mind that we won’t just do an EV. We also wanted to do an h-tron,” Pint said. The swapping out of the e-tron’s massive 95 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a fuel cell and three hydrogen tanks resulted in weight savings of about 400 pounds. “We lose a little bit of space in the h-tron, but save weight.” He said that except for the faint sound of the fuel-cell system’s compressors, at the core, both cars are electric. The hydrogen fuel cell stack in the h-tron makes 110 kilowatts of power, which is augmented by another 100 kW of power from a 1.8-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack.
The h-tron uses two electric motors: a 90-kilowatt motor to power in front and a 140-kilowatt motor for the rear wheels. The combined output is 230 kilowatts—or about 310 horsepower. Zero to 62 mph acceleration in the five-passenger SUV is less than seven seconds. The ability to continuously vary the torque between the two axles provides a capable, sporty and safe ride, according to Audi.
The h-tron’s three gas tanks store six kilograms of hydrogen—with a fuel efficiency of about 1 kilogram per 100 kilometers. Therefore, the total range is about 600 kilometers or 373 miles. Critically, refueling time to fully replenish those six kilograms is about five minutes.
While Audi is using its e-tron and h-tron models to compare the relative trade-offs of range, refueling times, power, efficiency and handling, the company has apparently settled on its new dedicated body style for these cutting-edge vehicles: an aerodynamic and sleek crossover SUV. “You want to carry five people, have a nice luggage compartment, and be able to do long range trips,” Pint said. “This needs to be a proper single car for a family. It’s straightforward customer demand.”