In 2003, President Bush seized his nation’s attention with a State of the Union address, by advocating a “hydrogen economy,” with fuel cells that produce energy and water taking the place of fossil fuels in cars that produce greenhouse gases.
With the US of A being Canada’s largest trading partner, I had always wondered whether we would ever see the light of day where fuel cell vehicles would make it out of the prototype phase in my lifetime.
Well the future is here and the time is now. For some people anyway. Allow me to explain.
Think of a fuel cell electric vehicle (FCEV) as arguably the ultimate automotive holy grail. It promises the refuelling convenience and range of a gasoline-powered vehicle, but yet the zero emissions of a battery electric vehicle (BEV).
Although the general public doesn’t know it, Hyundai is no stranger to fuel cell technology. In fact this is their third generation fuel cell electric vehicle. Their first gen fuel cell vehicle was a Santa Fe, followed by the previous generation Tucson. Those vehicles were more or less road going experiments.
However for the first time in Canada, you and I can actually have a FCEV as a daily driver. Available only as a 36 month lease, the Hyundai Tucson FCEV is the first mass produced hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicle available in our true North strong and free.
What’s the big deal about fuel cells?
A fuel cell makes its electricity from a chemical reaction between the hydrogen fuel stored in the vehicle’s tanks and air. In the case of the Tucson FCEV, hydrogen atoms are stored in two carbon fibre tanks under the cargo floor.
When the hydrogen atoms pass through a platinum proton-exchange membrane, the electrons are stripped away creating electricity to power a drive motor.
The power output from the Tucson’s fuel cell stack is an amazing 100 kW (kilowatts), or in essence, more than enough to power your home…plus some of your neighbours’ houses too.
The only by-product from this reaction is water from the hydrogen protons combining with air on the other side of the membrane. So yes, the Tucson FCEV does have a tailpipe, but all that comes out from it is water vapour. Pure H2O.
What makes Hyundai’s design different?
Since Tucson FCEV is based on the company’s regular production gasoline-powered Tucson, there are major manufacturing costs savings. The other benefit is that Hyundai can scale production to meet global demand.
The Tucson’s fuel cell design also feeds near ambient-pressured air into the fuel cell stack unlike other designs that compress air on board. Because compressing air requires additional energy, the Hyundai’s design benefits from low parasitic energy loss in the oxygen supply.
Consequently, this setup leads to high efficiency and reduces power consumption by 50 per cent while reducing cabin noise as there is no on-board air compressor necessary.
Mention hydrogen, and the first thing that many people think of is the Hindenburg. But any fears would be unfounded, as Hyundai has implemented rigorous safety standards as part of their design.
Like all of their other vehicles, the Tucson FCEV has undergone Hyundai’s standard battery of crash tests for front, side and rear impact collisions and then some.
Hyundai Canada tells me that the hydrogen system itself was also subject to 15 extensive safety tests, including ballistics test, gas leakage tests, drop tests, pressurizing tests, fire tests, and high temperature tests.
The company conducted over 3-million kilometres of test drives of Tucson FCEV prototypes specifically, traveling to Death Valley in Arizona for hot weather testing, and Sweden for extreme cold weather tests.
All of this research and development has resulted in the Tuscon FCEV being equipped with several internal safety mechanisms to ensure the safety of the passengers in the vehicles. This includes impact sensor that stops the release of hydrogen from the tanks in event of a crash, and cabin hydrogen sensors that sound an alarm if a leak is detected.
In the event of a collision, these sensors trigger the tank to stop the flow of hydrogen so that the fuel cell stack stops generating electricity.
Also, when the temperature near the tank exceeds 110 Celsius, a safety valve opens to vent the hydrogen gas in order to prevent further combustion. Since hydrogen is the lightest element with the extremely low viscosity, it can quickly dissipate into atmosphere when exposed in ambient environment.
The chance of fire from leaked hydrogen is actually lower than gasoline, diesel or other automotive fuels since it is not stored in liquid form where it can remain near the vehicle.
If you’ve driven an electric vehicle before, you will be familiar with the Tucson Fuel Cell’s driving experience. It feels exactly like a battery electric vehicle.
Up front, there is a 134-hp AC motor which moves the compact SUV with surprising gusto thanks to the 221 lbs-ft of torque from 0 rpms. The acceleration is almost forceful, but tapers off when you reach around 80 km/hr.
Thanks to the large amount of torque, the real world acceleration feels a lot quicker than the Hyundai quoted 0-100 km/hr time of 11 seconds.
There is a small 0.95 kWh lithium-polymer battery on-board under the floor, borrowed from the Hyundai Sonata hybrid, that provides a max of 24 kW of power to fill in the gap in supplying the motor until the fuel cell starts making enough electricity.
The fuel cell itself has no moving parts and when combined with the single-speed transmission, quietly whisks the Tucson FCEV away on roads amongst other “dirty” fossil fuel vehicles.
To be frank, as a driving experience it doesn’t get much closer to an appliance than this. The electric steering is light but admittedly numb, the ride is comfortable without being floaty but not sporty.
But the Tucson FCEV’s mission in life is certainly not to be the most dynamic handling compact SUV out there, but the greenest.
I was expecting the Tucscon FCEV to be a bit of a stripped down model. But it fact it comes with all of the modern conveniences that owners expect these days, including dual-zone automatic climate control, GPS satellite navigation, satellite audio, backup camera with parking sensors. It even comes with heated leather seats!
The only thing that is unavailable on this model is a moonroof. Hyundai tells me that this due to its extra weight and how much longer it would take to cool down/heat the car. The latter is an important point with electric vehicles as the HVAC system is one of the major items that can affect the vehicle’s range.
Unlike previous Hyundai fuel cell vehicles, the hydrogen tank/fuel cell stack no longer takes up the whole cargo hold. In fact, it just sits under the slightly raised cargo floor. Yes you do lose the spare tire (a fix-a-flat inflator/sealant is included) and there is no room for the all-wheel-drive hardware.
But since the tank is located beneath the cargo area, there is almost no intrusion into the passenger area. The rear seats still fold down flat, just as in the gasoline-powered Tucsons.
As there is no public hydrogen refueling infrastructure in Canada at the moment, Hyundai has had to negotiate with private hydrogen distributors in BC to ensure public access.
In order to pick customers most suited for the Tucson FCEV, Hyundai Canada employs an extensive application process. This includes a phone interview and a test drive to make sure that that owners understand the risks and limitations associated with pioneering a new technology, and that they are within range of the hydrogen refueling station’s location.
For now, there is only refueling spot designated for the Tucson in British Columbia. Powertech Labs in Surrey, BC.
Powertech generates all of their hydrogen on-site through electrolysis at their Hydrogen Technology Centre. There is no transportation involved in getting the hydrogen from the plant to the pump as the pump is on-site. This makes the entire manufacturing process a lot more efficient than the handful of other hydrogen stations that are currently available, where hydrogen has to get trucked in from the manufacturing source.
That being said though, like other fuels, it does that energy to make energy, and there is still further development (and mass production) needed to drastically reduce the cost of hydrogen.
Hyundai has announced that they are committed to working with the government and the hydrogen industry to expand the number of refueling stations available. Ultimately, this is the only way fuel cell electric vehicles can survive in the long run, if there is an infrastructure in place.
Watch me refuel the Tuscon in this video below.
There are no special maintenance requirements for the Tucscon FCEV. Like a conventional car, typical servicing include inspecting the brakes and tires, replacing the cabin air filter, replacing the coolant, etc.
As an added perk, just like their top of the range Equus luxury car, Hyundai’s concierge service will pick up the vehicle from your home/office and drop off a loaner vehicle when the vehicle needs to be serviced.
How much will it cost?
According to Hyundai, the cost of this hydrogen technology has been reduced by 40 per cent over the past 15 years. However, fuel cells still remain expensive as the technology is still relatively in its infancy.
In order to gain valuable real world information from real owners, auto manufacturers are subsidizing a large portion of the lease price of the vehicle.
In the Tucson’s case, the lease price is a shockingly reasonable $529 a month (after government incentives), which includes Hyundai picking up the tab for the hydrogen fuel and maintenance for the 36 month, 20,000 km/year term. Yes, you read that right.
There is no option to buy-out the vehicle after the lease, presumably because the company is going to use the vehicles for R&D purposes. But after 36 months, surely something newer, better, and more efficient will be available anyway. We can only wait and see if the monthly lease price will remain at its current level the next time around.
As the first mass-produced fuel cell vehicle and the first CUV to ever offer fuel cell technology, the Tucson Fuel Cell is one of the most futuristic vehicles on the road today.
But if anonymity is not what you want with your EV choice, the Tucson FCEV may not be the best vehicle for you. It plays its part at being a wolf in sheep’s clothing so well that the only people who were excited about the vehicle were Nissan Leaf owners who waiting in the electric car charging parking spots at the mall, waiting for their rides to charge.
That being said, the Tucson FCEV does it’s job at being an compact SUV just as well as the gasoline powered Tucson, just a lot more eco-friendly. So if you like the latter, there’s also a lot to like about the FCEV version of the vehicle.
For people like myself who live in a condo building without any readily available power sockets, the ability to fill-up in 4 minutes and attain over 400+ kms of zero-emissions range makes a whole lot of sense. With more hydrogen stations coming, the fuel cell vehicle has the potential to compete with battery electric vehicles.
And thus for now, the Hyundai Tucson FCEV is one small step for hydrogen, but one potentially large step for electric vehicles everywhere.