Hyundai On Hydrogen Fuel-Cell Vehicles: Critiquing Its Claims

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Every so often, Hyundai posts an entry on its "Hyundai Like Sunday" blog, which promotes itself as "Truth, Candor and Conversation."

Two months ago, the company's Elizabeth Chun offered some thoughts on its upcoming 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell compact crossover. That vehicle will be offered for lease this spring in selected markets in Southern California.

MORE: 2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell: Hydrogen Crossover First Drive

We drove the Tucson Fuel Cell in early December, and found it to be perfectly suitable for daily and long-distance use--though gutless at higher speeds--assuming hydrogen fuel were available.

Critical look

But it's worth diving into Hyundai's take on the pros and cons of hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, to look critically at some of its assertions.

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

Enlarge Photo

The piece, Tucson Fuel Cell: The Next Generation Electric Vehicle, couches the hydrogen-powered Tucson as an electric car with a different energy source to power its electric drive motor.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Hyundai Motors America contacted us to note that the post was written by now-departed CEO John Krafcik, and that Elizabeth Chun is the company's online content administrator.]

The author is careful to acknowledge that battery-electric technology "continues to improve and provides a viable alternative for some" users, but focuses on the "inherent slow-charge limitations" that she suggests limit battery-powered cars to a "distinct subset of car buyers."

That's arguably true for buyers who regularly travel more than, say, 75 miles a day and have no access to either workplace charging or DC fast-charging stations en route.

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

Enlarge Photo

Today, far more DC fast-charging locations are available than hydrogen fueling stations, though neither total comes remotely close to the 100,000-plus gas stations that blanket the U.S.

Build us hydrogen stations...

But Hyundai notes that the Tucson Fuel Cell will only be offered to "early ZIP codes with easy access to hydrogen infrastructure."

The piece says this will limit sales of the vehicle, since the company sells a total of just 1,300 gasoline-powered Tucsons a year within those areas.

But, she says, it's more about a superb customer experience than high sales volume, and so Hyundai will pace itself "to the infrastructure that is being developed in parallel."

"We’re hoping the consumer interest we’re seeing already will help spark additional action among private companies and state and local governments," she writes, "to expedite infrastructure deployment."

In other words, Hyundai is saying, build us hydrogen stations and we'll provide the cars.

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

2015 Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell at hydrogen fueling station, Fountain Valley, CA

Enlarge Photo

Three main points

Then the author dives into the meat of the piece, noting that Hyundai spent time with "some of the deans of the green car journalist field" and asked about "the key battlegrounds" of the debate between grid-powered and hydrogen-fueled electric cars.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Green Car Reports was one of several outlets Hyundai approached for the discussion that led to the piece. We saw and commented on a pre-publication draft of the Hyundai blog post. We did not know what the final post would say, nor when it would publish. This article is our response to the final version.]

The piece summarizes those issues in three statements:

  • Grid-powered cars have lower wells-to-wheels greenhouse-gas emission than hydrogen-fueled cars;
  • The cost of hydrogen infrastructure poses a fundamental barrier to widespread deployment of hydrogen vehicles; and
  • Slow charging of plug-in cars is offset by the convenience of overnight home charging, impossible for hydrogen cars.

We think that's a fair summary of the main arguments.

New UC-Irvine study

Addressing the wells-to-wheels carbon footprint issue, the piece notes that a recent analysis by the Advanced Power and Energy Program, at the University of California at Irvine shows essentially equivalent greenhouse-gas emissions for hydrogen and battery vehicles when accounting for all inputs, including "feedstock, production, transmission and consumption."

Battery-powered vehicles have "a small advantage in California based on the cleaner grid here, while [fuel-cell vehicles have] a small advantage on a national basis," she continues.

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