Riversimple's Hydrogen Fuel Cell NEV

It's a great relief when you think you are showing up for just another press release about a new car by someone trying to get a piece of the automotive pie and you get proven wrong! Just when green car design seemed to be heading in a purely electric direction out comes Riversimple with their Hydrogen Fuel Cell NEV (Network Electric Vehicle) urban car. Get ready to have your preconceptions turned upside down and brought back down to earth, and pay attention because the revolutionary principle behind Riversimple is in its name, ‘simple mobility’.

The unveiling of the Riversimple car and the company was held this morning, June 16th 2009, at Somerset House on Strand in London. Huddled under a small canopy were dozens of reporters and industry visitors alike trying to capture the essence of what has been almost a decade of work in the making. Hugo Spowers, the brainchild of the project, spoke passionately about the changes we need to make to become more sustainable as a human race and to protect our environment. People trying to grasp at the complexities of turning green without any real substance or knowledge generally spew green words in an effort to fit in. Today, however, was a different day. As the sun in all its glory shone down on the event held on a terrace overlooking the Thames and the London Eye it was evident that Mr. Spowers has figured it out, and mostly critically knows what he is talking about.

The Car

The Riversimple car, no code name, just the car, has been conceived as an antithesis to all cars as we know them today. Its key features are hydrogen fuel cells, four electric motors (one in each wheel), regenerative braking, and a body made of lightweight composites. While none of these features is individually new to the automotive industry it is the synthesis of them that is innovative. Riversimple has rearranged the components in a way that they call Network Electric Vehicle (NEV).

In addition to this new package the car’s efficiency is maximised by two main principles, conceived by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute, called decoupling acceleration and cruise demand - whereby braking is done by the electric motors and stored in a bank of ultracapacitors allowing the car to have a fuel cell a fifth the size than that of a conventional car - and mass decompounding – by designing the vehicle as a whole the architecture is tailored to technology and visa versa, eliminating gearbox and driveshaft and allowing for much lighter components making power-assisted systems redundant. The car uses a 6kW fuel cell dramatically cutting the cost of manufacturing and weight of vehicle to 350 kg, while maintaining a range of 200 miles, a top speed of 50mph, and greenhouse gas emissions level of 30 g/km ‘well to wheel’. A simple comparison to the currently lowest emitting car available, Polo Blue Motion, at 99g/km ‘tank to wheel’ (‘well to wheel’ would bring it up to 121g/km) highlights the benefits.

Is Hyrdogen as an alternative fuel dead? Not to Riversimple. As Mr. Spowers explained to GCD perhaps hydrogen doesn’t work on an industrial level with existing business models but if you envision the fuel coming from local sources unique to different areas around the UK, needless to say around the world, then you are talking real progress. You can travel 4 times as far on 1 kg of hydrogen than petrol so in his view it is the ideal solution today for small cities that can produce their own source of hydrogen locally. Riversimple does not intend to replace all existing cars with their own, they just want to provide a solution for the future of mobility.

We would rather be a small fish in a big pond than a big fish in a shriveled up pond!

The Design

At first glance you would be forgiven if you felt that someone had taken a G’awful’Wiz and stuck it in a wind tunnel for a few days. Its not a beauty, but then again it was not created to win a beauty contest. It was made to ‘demonstrate’ Riversimple’s technologies, developments, and way of thinking, which it did perfectly. The naivety of the exterior monocoque carbon fibre styling demonstrated only that there is much work to be done yet its petite size and friendly awkward face attracted everyone alike. The body’s tear drop shape was somewhat sporty probably reflecting Mr. Spowers’s background as an all round race car enthusiast (his company Prowess Racing designed, built, and restored racing cars).

Inside two bucket ‘racing’ seats covered in what seemed to be camel colour Alcantara had a touch of retro Alfa Romeo tucked in for good measure. The softness and casual look was out of place in contrast to the rigid black carbon fibre exterior. The real delight was under the hood, or cover, that once removed exposed a pristine collection of fans, cables, and fuel cell. Clearly the concept was not made from sustainable or eco-friendly materials which is always a let down when it comes to green design concept cars. There is no reason not to extend the ‘good intentions’ right through to the production of a concept car, or in this case a ‘concept demonstrator’. Mr. Spowers did reassure GCD that in production there would be a concerted effort to make the materials part of a closed loop process (this means that everything from A to Z of the process is sustainable).

We have set up an open source foundation, 40 Fires Foundation, to which we are donating the designs of our first car.

Yes! Open Source Car Design…you read correctly, the Riversimple project is following the famously controversial Internet model of Open Source. This means that all their research and development will be made public and anyone can contribute or use these findings for their own distribution as long as they share their improvements as well. Open Source is a model that started in the 70’s and is generally accepted to originate from a group in MIT in Boston and heavily influenced by Linus Torvalds who developed the Linux kernel. Open Source was only officially formed as the Open Source Initiative in 1998. Since its inception the community of programmers and developers has grown exponentially and although the software is free there is potential in the model to make money and create profitable businesses. So, even though, it might seem crazy to give all your R&D away for free in return you get immense benefits and the market, in theory, will never stagnate or crash as badly as it has recently.

The Business Model

Riversimple, who’s main figures are Hugo Spowers and Sebastian Piëch, will not sell cars they will lease them. There are many intesresting elements to this business model, but the most important effects are longevity and efficiency. Riversimple will retain ownership and responsibility for the life of the car and recycle it at the end. A Riversimple car will cost approximately £200 a month to lease plus 15p a mile. This includes supply of the vehicle, breakdown insurance, fuel, tyres, and other maintenance costs taking corporate responsibility to a totally new level! This structure will be reflected in other areas as well such as the structure of the company and its stakeholders. The Environment, Staff, Users, Neighbours and Community, and Investors and Founders will each as a group get representatives so that a majority is always needed in decision making thus eliminating personal interests that often conflict with the health of the environment and the economy.

The Riversimple story is complex but the foundation is simple…do more with less. Large automotive companies cannot, and will never, be able to achieve or attain the levels of efficiency and sustainability proposed by the Riversimple business model because of the ‘personal’ interests of the people involved. Ironically, it is the people who dissatisfied with these institutions have gathered round in protest and given life to a new breed of carmaker. With open, transparent, and free systems that can be translated locally by manufacturers worldwide production and development of cars should be optimal on all levels. Open Source works virtually, we shall see if it works physically!

Links to groups involved in Riversimple


40 Fires Foundation

Cranfield University

Element Energy


Horizon Fuel Cell Technologies

Hydrogen Society

Linde Group (BOC)

Open Source Info

Oxford University

Rocky Mountain Institute

Sustainable Development Capital