Hyundai Sees Hydrogen Vehicles As 10 Years Behind Battery Cars–And Is Pushing Both

Hyundai Motor has a highly anticipated electric hatchback heading to the U.S. in the coming weeks and showed off an edgy concept version of a battery-powered midsize SUV in Los Angeles this month. Yet even as it prepares to take on Tesla in EVs the Korean industrial giant also has big plans to take hydrogen power mainstream–though it’s an option that may not be fully competitive until the end of the decade.  

Hyundai this year said it has a new version of its hydrogen fuel cell power system for cars and trucks that will be twice as powerful, 30% smaller and cost half as much as its current version. Still, hydrogen technology is about where battery vehicles were in the early 2010s, says José Moñoz, chief operating officer for the Seoul-based automaker and head of its operations in the Americas. 

“At that time people were still asking, ‘is this going to happen? This is not true. We don’t have infrastructure. People won’t like it.’ Now there’s (charging) infrastructure; the technology has evolved; the ranges are better; the features are great, and more importantly, people who buy one now say they’ll buy another,” Moñoz tells Forbes. “Hydrogen is going through a similar phase–the phase of introducing a new technology. But we need better (fueling) infrastructure because it’s still very limited. However, in terms of the reaction by the consumer, when they drive a vehicle which is powered by hydrogen, there is a fantastic reaction.”

Elon Musk has long dismissed hydrogen as a viable zero-emission fuel, deriding its inefficiency relative to batteries and labeling the technology “fool cells.” Though much like his rejection of laser lidar for autonomous vehicles–or dicey claims about how quickly Tesla could perfect self-driving technology–Hyundai and major auto and truck manufacturers including Toyota, General Motors, Daimler and Volvo, startup Nikola and engine maker Cummins have a more expansive view, seeing both batteries and hydrogen as necessary technologies for clean vehicles. And in Hyundai’s case, the company has unusually ambitious hopes for the universe’s most abundant element as a power source. 

The automaker “is aggressively developing hydrogen technologies and fuel cell applications for transportation, homes and industry,” Moñoz said in a presentation at the Los Angeles Auto Show this month. “We envision a future in which hydrogen is the primary power source for everyone, everything, everywhere.” 

Fuel cell and battery vehicles are both electric, sharing the same motors and many other components. The key difference is batteries store electricity while fuel cells make it onboard as needed, in an electrochemical process that extracts electrons from hydrogen forced through fuel-cell membranes. Aside from electricity, the only byproduct is water vapor. Beyond cars, trucks and forklifts, they’ve been used by NASA for decades, they work as stationary electricity generators and are being developed to power trains and even ships and ferries. 

Yet advocates for the fuel are still working to solve big challenges: the technology has to overcome high costs for fuel cells stacks and hydrogen tanks that make the vehicles more expensive than those powered by carbon-based fuels or batteries. Additionally, the supply of “green” hydrogen fuel sourced from renewable energy and water, or sourced from waste materials, needs to expand dramatically to ensure maximum carbon reduction. In September, Hyundai estimated its fuel cell system could reach cost parity with battery power by 2030.

At the Los Angeles Auto Show, alongside Hyundai’s new electric Ioniq 5 hatchback, a lower-priced competitor to Tesla’s Model Y that goes on sale late this year, and battery-powered Seven crossover vehicle that may go into production by 2024, the company also displayed its Nexo fuel cell SUV, already available in California, and Xcient fuel cell semi truck that’s coming to the state. 

California is the top market for hydrogen cars in the U.S., with 12,082 in operation as of Nov. 1, and an additional 48 hydrogen fuel cell buses, according to the California Fuel Cell Partnership. There are also 47 public hydrogen stations operating in the state, with an additional 127 planned. By comparison, there were an estimated 835,000 plug-in electric cars in the state at the end of 2020 and at least 73,000 EV charging stations.

To make it easier for consumers to own a fuel cell vehicle, Hyundai is looking to help some of its dealerships add hydrogen stations, Moñoz said. In Southern California, that could mean between three and five new stations.

“We are helping our dealers get the hydrogen infrastructure in place, in the key markets where there is a demand for hydrogen products,” he said. “Also we are joining a project with Shell where we are co-developing 50 stations by 2030, mainly in California. That’s phase one.”


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