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Hydrogen or pure electric: What makes more sense for your next Ford Ranger, Toyota HiLux or Renault Trafic light-commercial vehicle?

Ford's F-150 Lightning will be one of the first full-electric utes available to buy, but is relegated just to the US for now.

When it comes to motoring, the winds of change blow stronger with each passing day. For some people, they may have unknowingly already bought their last petrol or diesel-engined car. For the rest of us, it’s really a question of “when”, not “if” we’ll turn our back on combustion propulsion.

But even so, some questions do remain. Electric vehicles (EVs) have comprehensively stolen a march on hydrogen fuel-cell electric vehicles (FCEVs), with electric cars transforming from automotive oddities to objects of genuine desire over the past ten years. However, more than a few manufacturers are still betting big on FCEVs being a part of our motoring future, and most of them are pitching hydrogen as the ideal power source for the commercial vehicles of the future.

So, will your next one-tonne ute or work van have a massive battery slung underneath, or will it flaunt a space-age fuel cell and a tank of hydrogen instead? There’s no need to wonder, because believe it or not both of these kinds of vehicles are a lot closer to showroom reality than you might think.

Battery Electric

By now, the greater public is aware of battery electric vehicles, their virtues and their limitations. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S, Model 3 and Nissan Leaf have been doing much of the heavy lifting there – and have been joined by cars like the Hyundai Ioniq, Mercedes EQC, Jaguar I-Pace and Audi E-Tron in recent years. But so far there’s been very little in the way of all-electric commercial vehicles in this country.

In fact, aside from Fuso's recently launched zero-emissions light-duty vehicle, the Renault Kangoo ZE is thus far the only electric workhorse from a mainstream manufacturer to go on sale in Australia, and uptake has been … limited to say the least.

Blame that on a hefty $50,290 before on-road costs pricetag and short 200km range. Considering its stature as a small van, the price-to-payload ratio is sub-par and the meagre single-charge range is a big handicap for something pitched as a delivery van. It might make a lot of sense in the dense and compact cities and towns of Europe, but not so much in more sprawling Australian urban landscapes – unless it doesn’t stray too far from its home base.

But blazing a trail is a hard thing to do, and more all-electric load-luggers are set to follow in the Kangoo’s tyre tracks. Over in the USA, the Ford F-150 Lightning is on the verge of entering showrooms, and will boast a range of at least 540km on a single charge, a 4.5-tonne tow rating, 420kW of power, 1050Nm of torque and the ability to become an on-site battery bank to keep tools powered up.

Also in the USA, the Hummer brand is soon to be revived as an all-electric off-road ute. Its usefulness to tradespeople may be limited by a smallish tub, but its off-road capabilities are set to be eyewatering and its 620km estimated range should alleviate the range anxiety of most drivers. A 0-100km/h time of around three seconds should be sufficiently exciting too.

Then of course there’s Tesla’s Cybertruck, which stole the show last year with its edgy (literally) styling and promise of bulletproof build and incredible performance. Unlike the Ford and Hummer, however, we have yet to see a production version.

US upstart Rivian has indicated that it will likely launch in Australia, with the company’s R1T ute recently spotted touching down in Australia for local testing. With 550kW/1124Nm and a max range of roughly 640km, it too should have the versatility and muscle required to get jobs done.

Chinese automaker GWM will also send a Hilux-sized electric ute our way, but a locally-built option will soon arrive in the form of the ACE EV X1 Transformer. Built by Australian EV startup ACE, the X1 Transformer will arrive as a long-wheelbase high-roof van with 90kW, 255Nm, a 1110kg payload and real-world range of between 215-258km. With a maximum speed of just 90km/h it’s obvious that the X1 Transformer is only intended for delivery van duty and an on-sale date has yet to be locked in, but if the price is right it could nevertheless be competitive for some businesses. 

In Europe, vans like the Peugeot Partner Electric, Mercedes-Benz eSprinter and Fiat E-Ducato are production reality, showing that battery-electric tech is mature enough for the mainstream. That said, there are some negatives.

While it’s easy to find somewhere to charge one – just look for any old powerpoint – the charging times for most pure EVs can be brutal if not using a dedicated fast charger. Roughly 8 hours is the norm, but the bigger the battery the longer you’ll need to stay plugged in, and if all you have is an ordinary 230V household outlet, charging time can stretch beyond a full day.

Range anxiety – the fear of being stranded somewhere with a low battery and a long charge time – is the last thing a commercial operator needs, and time spent plugged into a charger is time your work vehicle isn’t helping you make a living. EV batteries are also heavy, eating up payload capacity and – in the case of body-on-frame utes – adding weight to a vehicle class that’s already quite heavy to begin with.

So, what’s the alternative?

Hydrogen Fuel Cell

Besides being less reliant on large quantities of expensive materials as a chemical battery, a hydrogen fuel cell also possesses two significant advantages: low weight, and very fast refuelling times.

Doing away with the weight penalty of a big battery pack not only makes for a better-handling vehicle, it allows a vehicle to dedicate more of its gross weight towards carrying a payload. A win when it comes to commercial vehicles, right?

Hyundai certainly thinks so. The South Korean company recently announced its plan to bring FCEVS to the mainstream by targeting the commercial sector first, mainly with large and medium trucks and buses, but also with a handful of passenger cars and vans too. 

Hyundai already has hydrogen-powered trucks performing real-world trials in Europe, where hydrogen infrastructure is already established, and so far, the results have been promising.

However, the technology is still in its infancy relative to EVs, and even Hyundai will admit that FCEVs are far from hitting prime time. The company nevertheless expects that by the end of this decade it will be able to offer a hydrogen fuel-cell passenger car at the same price as an equivalent pure electric car – which should be the point where FCEVs become truly viable.

And that will be good news to those concerned about EV recharge times, with FCEVs able to have their tanks filled up in a similar time to today’s petrol and diesel vehicles. The only problem that would remain to be solved is that of infrastructure – in Australia, hydrogen stations are basically non-existent outside of a handful of experimental sites.

Even so, in Europe there are already a number of hydrogen-fuelled commercial vehicles heading for the showroom. The Renault Master ZE Hydrogen, Peugeot e-Expert Hydrogen and Citroen Dispatch are all production-ready, and offer similar performance and carrying capacity to their all-electric and combustion-engined counterparts.

As far as FCEV dual-cab utes, though, there’s not as much activity. Queensland company H2X Global is aiming to launch its Warrego Ute later this year, with the Ford Ranger-based vehicle toting either a 66kW or 90kW fuel cell to supply power to its onboard battery and 200kW/350Nm drive motor. 

Performance is middling, with a top speed of just 110km/h for the 66kW version (150km/h for the 90kW) and maximum tow capacity of 2500kg. Its 1000kg payload is at least on par with other dual-cabs.

However, H2X Global claims the Warrego will be able to drive for at least 500km on a single tank of hydrogen, with the 90kW fuel cell extending that to 750km. Running low on gas? The refuelling time should take between three and five minutes – not eight or so hours.

It’s going to be brutally expensive though. The 66kW base model Warrego is expected to be priced at $189,000, with the 90kW models ranging between $235,000 and $250,000. Couple that with a limited refuelling network, and the viability of the Warrego doesn’t look so good.

A Toyota HiLux FCEV has been rumoured, and could leverage Toyota’s significant hydrogen experience with the Mirai passenger car, however nothing has been confirmed as yet. The HiLux has yet to even make the step to hybridisation, something which is expected to happen by 2025, possibly with a diesel-electric powertrain.

However, once pricing comes down and hydrogen stations proliferate, which would you choose? Is hydrogen’s faster turnaround time something that fits better with your lifestyle, or is an electric ute or van more appealing for your business? Or … is there simply no replacement for liquid hydrocarbons when it comes to your workhorse?