Startup aims to revitalize Australia's car industry with hydrogen technology

Ronan Glon


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Start-up H2X wants to resurrect Australia's car manufacturing sector by putting together a full line of hydrogen-powered cars by the middle of the 2020s. It announced its plans in June 2020, but it pointed out its team has been working on the project since 2015.

Based in New South Wales, the western Australian state Sydney is located in, H2X is an independent, privately-funded company that aims to tailor zero-emissions driving to the unique needs of motorists Down Under. Australia is a vast nation the size of a continent, and the middle of it is largely empty, so gas stations are few and far between outside of major urban centers. The odds of finding a fast-charger with an air-conditioned Starbucks conveniently propped up next to it in the middle of the Outback are even lower. That's why H2X is focusing on hydrogen technology, which is better suited to driving long distances than electric technology.

H2X claimed it has already developed several prototypes, though it only released design sketches. One of the models it focused on is a 255-horsepower crossover named Snowy equipped with a 60-kilowatt fuel cell. Additional technical details are vague and likely haven't been finalized yet, but the firm explained it wants its cars to offer "a balance between hydrogen energy and kinetic and externally-charged electricity using an advanced hybrid system which can determine the most efficient approach for a given journey."

What the company described sounds like a hydrogen-electric plug-in hybrid drivetrain with regenerative braking. When the tanks are full, the onboard fuel cell uses hydrogen to generate electricity and send it to the wheels. If they're empty, or on short urban trips, the driver can charge the battery pack by plugging the car into a charging station, rely on it for power, and bypass the fuel cell altogether.

Like much else, information about H2X's future products remain under wraps. It released design sketches depicting a delivery van and a taxi, and hinted it sees a great amount of potential in the electrification of bigger vehicles like semi trucks and buses.

The company's business plan calls for initially sourcing vehicle architectures from a third-party based outside of Australia; its identity wasn't revealed. It added that its powertrain platform has already been developed, and it's currently found in vehicles operating in Asia; here again, we don't know who makes them. From there, it will install body panels and interior parts manufactured in Australia. Looking ahead H2X plans to increase the amount of local content in its cars to 80% by 2025, one year after it hopes to offer a full line-up of cars. 

H2X's executive team includes CEO Brendan Norman, who has previously help top positions at BMW, the Volkswagen Group, Infiniti, and England-based hydrogen car hopeful Riversimple. Chris Reitz is its lead designer and the head of its European division; his resume includes leading design for the Fiat Group plus positions at Volkswagen and Nissan. Peter Zienau, who worked as the head of global EV programs for General Motors, is its CTO. Most of the other names on its roster have decades of experience in the automotive industry. While that doesn't guarantee a resounding success, it should at least boost the confidence of investors.

Startups often trumpet ambitious goals, and H2X is no different. It plans to create 5,000 jobs in Australia as it ramps up production in the next five years and hopes to indirectly generate up to 25,000 additional jobs through what it defines as "an Australian-oriented supply chain." The catch is that the hydrogen refueling infrastructure is no better in Australia than in the United States. H2X is realistic enough to take this problem into account. It noted the Snowy could hit the roads in 2022 or 2023, but warned this timeline could be affected by how quickly the nation's network of refueling stations develops. If everything goes according to plan, it will show the first running prototypes in November 2020, begin customer test drives in April 2021, and launch volume production in July 2021.

Reviving a dead industry

Crippled by shifting buyer expectations and competition from foreign companies, Australia's car manufacturing sector unceremoniously collapsed in the second half of the 2010s. Ford ended 91 years of local manufacturing in 2016, while Toyota and General Motors-owned Holden —which built the Chevrolet SS —closed their Australian plants the following year. The latest blow to the country's automotive industry came in 2020, when General Motors confirmed the ax will fall on the Holden brand by the end of 2020.

Australia's car market is at least as truck-obsessed as America's. The best-selling model Down Under is the Toyota Hilux pickup.

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