Meet the Rasa, a Fuel-Cell Car with a Pay-as-You-Go Business Plan

Business, Cars  /   /  By Jim Motavalli

A new small fuel-cell car will be hitting the road (initially in England) in 2018, Riversimple’s Rasa. It’s a departure from the auto company model, and in more than just its Smart Car-type looks. Riversimple isn’t selling cars, but a transportation service, with consumers paying to use the car through one- to three-year contracts (with mileage provisions).

The Rasa is an upright two-passenger car, able to obtain 300 miles of range from just 1.5 kilograms of hydrogen (with the energy equivalent of 1.5 gallons of gasoline) because of its lightweight construction (just 1,278 pounds, with a carbon composite chassis and carbon-fiber-reinforced polymer panels). The fuel cell itself, sourced from Canada-based Hydrogenics, is small, too—just 8.5 kilowatts, similar in size to stacks used in forklifts.

Using a design that dates back to the earliest days of motoring—but has seldom appeared on production cars—the Rasa has 14-kilowatt electric motors located in each of its four wheels. Zero to 60 takes 10 seconds, and top speed is approximately 60 mph.

Located in Llandrindod Wells, Wales, Riversimple was founded by Hugo Spowers in 2001 with the purpose of “pursuing, systematically, the elimination of the environmental impact of personal transport.” Its first hydrogen car, the LIFECar, was a collaboration with the Morgan Motor Company in 2008.

The next year, Riversimple showed its own concept, which I described in the New York Times at the time as “the offspring of a Smart car and a jellybean.” The design has since been refined, taking on some of the aspects of the first-generation Honda Insight hybrid (including the wheel spats). The two doors lift upwards in a gullwing configuration, like the BMW i8.

The current Rasa shares many elements of the early prototype, though its range has grown considerably from 200 miles and it no longer has a fuel cell sourced from Singapore. Riversimple claims the equivalent of 250 mpg from the latest version of its efficient car. Well-to-wheel emissions are just 40 grams of carbon dioxide per kilogram.

As noted, the Rasa will not be for sale. According to Spowers in an interview, it’s a “sale of service” model instead. Customers will pay monthly fees and Riversimple will cover the sometimes hidden costs of owning a car, including insurance, maintenance and repairs. Fuel is also included in the monthly fees.

The company’s first plant will have a capacity of no more than 5,000 units annually, Spowers said. “If we expand, it won’t be in the same place—we’ll build another small factory,” he said.

Later this year, Riversimple will build a test fleet of 20 vehicles, thanks to a $2.8 million grant from the European Union. Regular production should follow in 2018. One thing Riversimple will not do is build a large-scale hydrogen refueling network. He thinks that as the cars scale up a compelling case will be built for private investment in stations.

Although the car is highway-capable, Spowers sees it as primarily an around-town vehicle, and this reduces the need for infrastructure. “If it was traveling constantly at motorway speeds, we’d need 300 hydrogen stations in Britain,” Spowers said. “If it’s local, we need far fewer. The cars will only have to refuel about once a week, and 50 cars can share a station.”

Spowers says Riversimple is after a new paradigm for transportation. “When a fundamentally new technology comes along, it’s always accompanied by new business models,” he said. Indeed, just about everything is different about the Riversimple Rasa, including how customers will pay for and use it.

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