Executive Briefings

'It's a No-Brainer': Are Hydrogen Cars the Future?

Inventor Hugo Spowers has a dream: to replace today’s cars with his own hydrogen prototype. Is the world ready?

'It's a No-Brainer': Are Hydrogen Cars the Future?

In the mid-1990s, Spowers ran a Formula Three racing team. At the time, motorsport was in the pocket of big tobacco. Every weekend, Formula One cars emblazoned with cigarette brands — Marlboro, Camel, Silk Cut — raced on TV in front of millions. “It was pretty clear it was killing people,” Spowers says. “Meanwhile, the industry was portraying a link between smoking and winners. It was ludicrous. But nobody was going against it.”

So when, in 1995, Spowers’ team introduced a car decorated with an anti-smoking campaign, it caused a commotion. At a party the night before the car was set to debut at the British Grand Prix, the chairman of the British Racing Drivers’ Club summoned Spowers, outraged. “He bellowed at me for a full five minutes, about how motorsport needed its sponsors, and ‘not pinkos like you,’” Spowers says now, chuckling. But Spowers was unmoved: he knew he was right. Furthermore, he believed it made financial sense: the relationship with tobacco was tainting the sport for businesses that didn’t want to be associated with smoking.

But industries are slow to change, and Spowers’ scheme found few backers. Disillusioned and low on funds, he quit racing soon after. It wasn’t until 2006 that motorsport finally banned tobacco advertising completely.

So Spowers is used to being doubted, mocked and shouted down. But he has also learned to be patient. Sometimes, the only way to tell the difference between a crackpot and a visionary is to wait a while.

Now 57, Spowers has the grey hair of an ageing rock star, a ruddy complexion and a dishevelled charm. When we meet, a checked shirt is poking through large holes in his red cable-knit jumper; his trousers are being held up by a belt made from an upcycled fire hose. For the last 16 years, Spowers has been founder and chief engineer of Riversimple, a small hydrogen-fuelled car company based in Llandrindod Wells, in mid-Wales. In 2016, it unveiled its first production-ready car: the Rasa, a radical, ultra-light two-seater powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. This year, the company will roll out a beta test of 20 cars in Monmouthshire and if all goes well, Spowers hopes to have the car on the market in 2019. “As far as we can tell,” he says, “we are the only independent hydrogen car startup in the world.”

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In the mid-1990s, Spowers ran a Formula Three racing team. At the time, motorsport was in the pocket of big tobacco. Every weekend, Formula One cars emblazoned with cigarette brands — Marlboro, Camel, Silk Cut — raced on TV in front of millions. “It was pretty clear it was killing people,” Spowers says. “Meanwhile, the industry was portraying a link between smoking and winners. It was ludicrous. But nobody was going against it.”

So when, in 1995, Spowers’ team introduced a car decorated with an anti-smoking campaign, it caused a commotion. At a party the night before the car was set to debut at the British Grand Prix, the chairman of the British Racing Drivers’ Club summoned Spowers, outraged. “He bellowed at me for a full five minutes, about how motorsport needed its sponsors, and ‘not pinkos like you,’” Spowers says now, chuckling. But Spowers was unmoved: he knew he was right. Furthermore, he believed it made financial sense: the relationship with tobacco was tainting the sport for businesses that didn’t want to be associated with smoking.

But industries are slow to change, and Spowers’ scheme found few backers. Disillusioned and low on funds, he quit racing soon after. It wasn’t until 2006 that motorsport finally banned tobacco advertising completely.

So Spowers is used to being doubted, mocked and shouted down. But he has also learned to be patient. Sometimes, the only way to tell the difference between a crackpot and a visionary is to wait a while.

Now 57, Spowers has the grey hair of an ageing rock star, a ruddy complexion and a dishevelled charm. When we meet, a checked shirt is poking through large holes in his red cable-knit jumper; his trousers are being held up by a belt made from an upcycled fire hose. For the last 16 years, Spowers has been founder and chief engineer of Riversimple, a small hydrogen-fuelled car company based in Llandrindod Wells, in mid-Wales. In 2016, it unveiled its first production-ready car: the Rasa, a radical, ultra-light two-seater powered by a hydrogen fuel cell. This year, the company will roll out a beta test of 20 cars in Monmouthshire and if all goes well, Spowers hopes to have the car on the market in 2019. “As far as we can tell,” he says, “we are the only independent hydrogen car startup in the world.”

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'It's a No-Brainer': Are Hydrogen Cars the Future?