I could stand you right in front of the very first really mass-production capable hydrogen-powered vehicle and say "Look at that car. That's a hydrogen car that could be the future of motoring." And you would say "What car? What are you pointing at? Behind that white SUV thing?" Then maybe we'd kiss.
We can skip the kiss — I'm okay with that, too. The point is, Hyundai just sold their first fuel-cell powered Tucson to an actual normal person, and they could potentially build many more of these, on the same basic production line that they're building their normal gasoline versions. That's a big deal.
Well, actually, the more you dig, the somewhat less of a big deal it becomes, as "selling" is actually "leasing," and the dealer's claims that they're the "first in the country" to sell one, while technically true, are less impressive when you realize that the only dealers even trying to sell one are in Southern California and the Bay Area. That's it.
So, this really isn't the huge mass-market opening of the hydrogen-powered car market, at least not yet. Even so, it is notable because this fuel-cell Tucson is not some hand-built experiment like so many previous fuel cell cars have been, like Honda's FCS Clarity, for example. This Tucson starts life as a normal Tucson built in Hyundai's Ulsan, South Korea factory, which is then diverted down a spur line to accept the fuel cell stack and electric drivetrain.
Even the electric drivetrain components aren't custom — the battery is the same one they use in their other hybrids, and no special changes have to be made to the body or frame to accept the fuel cell/electric drivetrain or to mount the pair of ultra-high pressure hydrogen tanks. The only real noticeable difference is a rear load floor about 1/2" higher than the normal Tucson.
Oh, and according to Hyundai, the Fuel Cell Tucson is available in
"White, White, and Optional White"
Let's talk a bit about that new drivetrain. The fuel cell stack makes 100KW — which is pretty impressive, and uses that electricity to power the somewhat less impressive 134 HP electric motor, which drives the front wheels. The torque numbers are, like all electric motors, much higher, which certainly helps. The battery is used to store some energy for bursts when it's needed (starting up, harder acceleration, etc), and the overall range from a full charge of hydrogen is about 265 miles. That's better than most electric cars out there, save perhaps for Tesla.
The first buyer was a guy named Tim Bush and his lovely family. For the privilege of driving an anonymous white SUV that secretly has one of the most advanced drivetrains around and emit only water vapor for exhaust, he paid $3000 down and $499/month. That also includes all his fuel costs, since nobody's really sure how they want to charge for hydrogen right now.
Of course, being a lease, there's a 12,000 mi/yr driving limit, so he can't soak Hyundai by putting 50,000 free hydrogen miles on the first year. Though he might be able to fill up a bunch of beach balls and rubber rafts with free hydrogen, if he wanted some really dangerous homemade blimps.
The biggest issue, of course, is where to get the hydrogen. That goes for both the big-picture production side, and the individual owner's dilemma of finding hydrogen stations. You can't just go to a welding supply shop and get hydrogen, because the stuff sold there is too impure. I asked.
Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe, and that's great if you're planning to drive your Tucson in the interstellar void. Down here on earth, though, getting it is much tricker. It's used in oil refining, and pipelines of hydrogen are found in areas of big oil refineries — conveniently, one of those areas is Southern California. There's about 100 stations in California, most clustered around SoCal and the Bay Area. So, in the limited areas these cars are even available, there are some stations.
We were given a chance to drive the Fuel Cell Tucson around a bit, and topped it off at a nearby Shell hydrogen station as well. The whole experience was remarkably boring for as revolutionary as it technically is.
The FCEV Tucson feels like almost any other electric vehicle. Quiet, smooth, decent initial acceleration, but a pretty quick taper-off to a more mundane sluggishness. It's not as though it's too slow to be used or anything remotely like that, it just feels like a Leaf or any other EV. The steering and ride are pretty close to the normal Tucson (which means sort of forgettable), though it does handle a little better thanks the the bulk of its weight being more central and lower. It's not light at 4100 lbs, but that weight does give it a nicely planted feel.
Really, if it wasn't for the little plastic hydrogen sensor grille in the ceiling, you'd never know it wasn't a normal battery-electric. Well, until you were able to keep driving without getting stranded after you were 110 miles from home.
And there's also the refueling process — still not quite as quick as a gas stop, but infinitely faster than an electrical recharge. I believe they said to fill the Tucson's twin 10,000 PSI tanks (yikes) to full takes about 10-15 mins, depending on the pump. The goal is to get that down to about five minutes, which is what a conventional gas fill-up takes.
The pump assembly has been designed to be familiar to all of us gas-pumpers, and it basically is. The big difference is that no gases escape at all when the nozzle is out. It makes a hard dock to the socket on the car, and won't pump until it's sure the seal is secure.
That's of course, for safety, since people still think of the phrase "Oh, the humanity" when you mention hydrogen, and the idea of a 10,000 PSI tank right under your kids' asses is nervy to many. Still, they've done exhaustive crash tests, and the incredibly thick steel walls and kevlar wrappings of the tanks have held up very well in tests so far. Plus, even if there was a leak, hydrogen is so light it floats up and dissipates into the atmosphere very rapidly, making the actual risk of Hindenburging your SUV quite low.
The takeaway here? This is a relatively boring SUV. But it's hiding some very exciting technology inside. And when you can make things like 10,000 psi tanks of Hydrogen dull and a refilling experience that seems as common as any other, that's a pretty good indicator that we may be finally getting to a point where hydrogen is actually becoming a viable solution.
If we can make enough of it. Which we'll just have to see about.