After years of tests and trials, Hyundai is ready to put a hydrogen-powered car on sale to the general public in the United States. The 2014 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell will launch in spring 2014, but with many caveats.
Like all other fuel-cell vehicles, the Tucson operates by mixing hydrogen with oxygen in a small fuel cell that contains special catalyzing materials. The result is pure water, some heat, and about one volt of electricity. To scale up energy production, the individual one-volt cells are combined into a fuel cell "stack." In the case of the 2014 Hyundai Tucson, the fuel cell's electricity is sent either to the front wheels or to a small lithium-ion battery pack. As in a traditional hybrid, the battery works in tandem with the fuel cell to provide maximum acceleration, is recharged under deceleration, and can occasionally power the car itself without the fuel cell's input.
The 2014 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is rated for 134 hp and 221 lb-ft of torque, with a total driving range of between 250 and 300 miles. The 13-pound hydrogen tank, which stores fuel at more than 10,000 psi, is located beneath the cargo area. It has been extensively crash-tested and, according to Hyundai, will withstand even an 8G impact without going all Hindenburg.
Why Go H2?
With so many automakers pursuing hybrid or full-electric cars, Hyundai engineers are aware that the decision to go with a fuel-cell car is unusual. Hyundai Motor America product planning vice president Mike O'Brien says that a hydrogen-powered car makes more sense than a full-electric vehicle because it has the same range and short fueling times as a gasoline-powered car. Whereas electric cars take hours to charge and generally have a driving range of less than 100 miles, Hyundai claims the Tucson Fuel Cell can be fully topped off with hydrogen in eight minutes and will travel as far as 300 miles per tank.
"We really think this will make battery electric vehicles feel old fashioned," says Hyundai CEO John Krafcik. "People don't want to wait a long time to fill up or recharge."
Krafcik acknowledges that there aren't many hydrogen filling stations in most parts of the country but counters that there also aren't many fuel-cell cars on the road. "Is it the chicken or the egg with hydrogen? Our approach was to get the cars out there and see what happens."
To get the cars out there, Hyundai will make the Tucson Fuel Cell available to paying customers in spring 2014. There are, however, a few catches. Hyundai expects fewer than 1000 examples of the 2014 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell to be leased between next spring and 2016, and they are only available to customers in Orange County or Los Angeles, where the state of California has already helped establish a large number of hydrogen filling stations.
The upshot is that Hyundai will pay for an unlimited amount of hydrogen for lessees, which means driving the Tucson is both greenhouse-gas and cost free. Leasing the car itself will run $499 per month for 36 months, plusa $3000 deposit. While that's more costly than most electric or plug-in hybrid cars, Krafcik says the math works in Hyundai's favor if customers factor in the free fuel.
At the 2013 Los Angeles auto show, both Honda and Toyota will also show production-ready fuel-cell cars. If those cars and the Tucson Fuel Cell are successful, expect to see even more automakers experimenting with hydrogen-powered cars over the coming years.