Riversimple: Starting with a Blank Canvas

Riversimple - Mobility as a Service

For a long time, profit maximization has remained the ethos of the automotive industry. The factory mindset of ‘the more products you sell, the more money you make’ leaves little room to reflect on the environmental or social impact of the products sold. Riversimple, the world’s only independent hydrogen car startup, aims to break this paradox by delivering environmental and social impact in a way that is complementary with financial return.

UK-based Hugo Spowers founded Riversimple in 2005. Since its inception, the company has delivered three Hydrogen-powered fuel-cell vehicles – LIFECar (2005), Hyrban (2009), and Rasa (2016). The company is busy beta-testing its latest product Rasa and expects to roll it out in 2021.

Mobility as a Service ownership model which aligns stakeholder interests

Riversimple was the first car company to adopt a Mobility as a Service ownership model that doesn’t involve a product sale. It believes that its circular business model ensures that the company’s interests align with that of its various stakeholders.

Rasa’s users will be charged a fixed monthly fee and a variable usage fee based on miles. The monthly fee covers maintenance, tyres, repairs, insurance, and fuel costs. At the end of the 1-3 year contracts, the users can renew, exchange, or return the vehicle. Hence, it is in the company’s best interests to lower operating costs for its users (and itself) by making its cars as long-lasting, efficient, and recoverable as possible.

A similar incentive structure is at play with its suppliers. Suppliers, on a contract basis, retain the raw materials on their balance sheet, and hence, are enticed to recover and re-use them efficiently. For instance, Riversimple’s fuel cell suppliers lease kilowatt-hours, not fuel cells, to the vehicles. This agreement ensures a tight grip on quality and efficiency.

The company’s reliance on a distributed manufacturing model reduces its shipping costs by bringing the assembly line closer to the relevant markets.

A Holistic Design Perspective

Riversimple’s purpose is ‘to systematically pursue the elimination of environmental impact associated with personal transport’. To achieve this goal, Hugo has looked beyond the receding 20th-century automotive design framework to take a ‘whole system design perspective’. Riversimple’s cars cater to the realities of the 21st century and account for present-day constraints such as resource scarcity, climate change, and energy security. The company has relentlessly sought to eliminate, not reduce, its environmental impact as it believes that ‘less unsustainable is still unsustainable’.

“It’s much easier to design a new model to suit the 21st Century than to tweak a model that was designed to do something fundamentally different”

Hugo Spowers

Personal transport with zero environmental impact

Rasa – named after tabula rasa (clean slate) – is a blend of proven technical concepts procured from 16 years of expertise on building lightweight, zero-emission, and fuel-efficient cars. Components of Rasa are intricately designed along with the principles of Circular Economy.

  1. Hydrogen fuel cell Rather than fitting a fuel-cell into the existing mobile infrastructure, Riversimple has designed its cars to accommodate its fuel cell. In a Proton exchange membrane-lined fuel cell, Hydrogen is combined with Oxygen to produce electricity and water. With no other harmful by-products, Rasa’s emissions account to zero at the tailpipe and c.40gCO2/km Well-to-Wheel (accounting for Hydrogen coming from natural gas). These emissions are 60% lower than that of the least polluting cars currently on the market. The company has managed to achieve this feat with a low power (11 HP) fuel cell which takes 4-5 minutes to refill. In comparison, an electric vehicle takes 30 minutes to refill.
  2. Network electricity The higher the need for acceleration, the bigger and heavier the fuel cells. To avoid this,Riversimple has decoupled acceleration from cruising. The fuel cell only serves as a backup source of energy and powers the cruise speed when needed. Wheel hub motors and super-capacitors ensure that the generated electricity stays in a closed-loop, and is accessible-on-demand for acceleration.
  3. Regenerative braking The wheel hub motor system enables 100% electric and regenerative braking. More than 50% of the kinetic energy arising from braking can be recovered from all the four wheels and stored in the capacitors.
  4. Mass decompounding Owing to its modern wheel hub motor design, the model does not require transmission systems, gears, drive shafts or flexible cables. Rasa’s minimal infrastructure allows for a lightweight chassis and smaller tyres. The 580kg lightweight helps the car reach 300 miles on a single fill.

Built on Collaboration

To sustain its whole system-level approach, Riversimple relies on a multi-stakeholder corporate structure. Its independent legislative body, overseen by a steward, comprises of stakeholders impacted by the company’s activities. These six ‘custodians’ – representing the environment, customers, community, staff, investors, and commercial partners – are given equal voting rights on any system-level discussion. The design of Rasa was made open-source in 2009 for additional feedback.

Future Outlook

The lack of Hydrogen infrastructure required to refill the Hydrogen fuel cell is a significant deterrent. The initial costs in producing a Hydrogen car are high, and the company is dependent on grants and equity crowdfunding to scale its business.

Additionally, discussions have been rife on whether the world needs electric batteries or Hydrogen. Pros and cons of both these clean technologies have been analysed and compared at large. Despite being a pioneer in the Hydrogen car industry, Riversimple prefers to call itself a ‘sustainable car company’. It is open to any means of eliminating the environmental impact of its vehicles – Hydrogen-related or not. With an increase in renewable sources over time, Riversimple hopes to ‘systematically’ transition to 100% green hydrogen. For now, it has to make do with cutting down on energy consumption in use and reducing carbon emissions.

Either way, the automotive industry’s conventional silo approach is slowly but surely fading out in favor of a circular systems-level approach, and emerging innovators such as Riversimple are driving the change.