2014 LA Auto Show: Audi A7 Sportback H-tron Quattro is a Plug-in Hydrogen Hybrid

As we’ve said many times already this week, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles seem to be the darling of this year’s LA Auto Show, with multiple automaker debuting production and concept hydrogen fuel cell vehicles.

The Audi A7 H-Tron Quattro Concept combined hydrogen fuel cell technology with a plug-in hybrid.

The Audi A7 H-Tron Quattro Concept combined hydrogen fuel cell technology with a plug-in hybrid.

For the most part, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicles being demonstrated by Toyota, Hyundai and Honda are being marketed as an alternative to battery electric cars and plug-in hybrids, with their creators saying that hydrogen fuel cell cars give all the benefits of a zero-emission electric car but without any of the drawbacks.

But one car being debuted at the LA Auto Show this year shows that there’s a middle-ground where plug-in technology and hydrogen fuel cell technology can coexist in a joyous union: the Audi A7 Sportback H-Tron Quattro Plug-in hybrid concept car.

The Audi A7 Sportback H-Tron Quatrro concept is based on the current generation Audi A7 Sportback, but features two electric motors — one for each axle — to provide all-electric all-wheel drive capabilities and a total power output of 170 kilowatts. It’s also reasonably quick, taking 7.9 seconds to reach 62 mph from standstill, with an electronically-limited top speed of 111.8 mph.

Much like the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid, the A7 Sportback H-Tron Quattro concept features a 8.8 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, which can be recharged from a standard charging socket in a few hours and can provide up to 31 miles of range in all-electric mode.

Drive on electric when you can, and hydrogen when you need to.

Drive on electric when you can, and hydrogen when you need to.

Unlike the Audi A3 e-tron plug-in hybrid — which turns on its 1.4-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine when the battery pack is depleted — the A7 Sportback H-Tron Quattro concept switches on its hydrogen fuel cell stack to generate enough power to provide up to 310 miles of total range from a full tank of hydrogen at an energy efficiency of around 62 miles per kilogram of fuel.

As Audi points out, the normal operation of the hydrogen fuel cell stack  — which likes to be at around 80 degrees Celsius — puts a fairly high demand on the vehicle’s cooling system, but manages to operate at an efficiency level of around 60 percent. That’s far more efficient than a comparable gasoline engine would be for a similar power output.

What’s more, Audi says, the fuel cell stack can operate at temperatures as low as -28 degrees Celsius.

As we’ve pointed out several times this week, hydrogen-only vehicles do face some significant challenges on their way to mass-adoption, including the energy-intensive methods currently used to produce just 1 kilogram of hydrogen, a lack of refuelling infrastructure and a rather poor overall energy efficiency when compared to purely electric vehicles.

But Audi’s A7 Sportback H-Tron Quattro concept deftly demonstrates, a plug-in hybrid with a range-extending hydrogen fuel cell stack is by far the best use of hydrogen fuel cell technology since it combines the convenience of range-extending capabilities for longer-distance trips with the ease of use of a traditional plug-in car.

And if we’re honest, it’s the only hydrogen fuel cell car we think has a commercial chance.

Do you agree? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.

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