Hyundai is one of a handful of automakers to remain committed to hydrogen fuel-cell cars. But the automaker is also looking beyond cars, anticipating an entire “hydrogen economy” where fuel cells have a variety of other uses.

This hydrogen bullishness is based on the work of Jeremy Rifkin, a well-regarded futurist and author of The Hydrogen Economy. Rifkin believes hydrogen will be as transformative in the 21st century as steam power was in the 19th century. 

Technological advances are making more widespread uses of hydrogen possible, while the need to address climate change provides the impetus to switch to hydrogen from fossil fuels, a Hyundai presentation said.

Hyundai also cited a McKinsey & Company report saying hydrogen could meet 18 percent of global “final energy demand” by 2050.

The automaker expects hydrogen to eventually generate $2.5 trillion in revenue per year, with half of that revenue coming from sales of hydrogen itself, and the other half from sales of fuel-cell vehicles and energy storage units. 

Hyundai presentation on hydrogen economy

Hyundai presentation on hydrogen economy

Another reason to be bullish on fuel cells is government policy. South Korea and China are preparing to invest heavily in hydrogen infrastructure. Japan has also long supported hydrogen, both because it lacks domestic fossil fuel reserves and because the country can no longer rely on nuclear power in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

In 2019, Hyundai unveiled a concept hydrogen fuel-cell semi truck called the HDC-6 Neptune. Prior to that, the automaker said it would make 700,000 fuel-cell systems per year by 2030, encompassing both passenger and commercial vehicles, as well as forklifts and drones.

Toyota is taking a similarly-diverse approach to fuel cells. The automaker demonstrated their use as a stationary power source at one of its Japanese factories, and is testing a small fleet of fuel-cell semi trucks in California. These alternative applications provide a hedge against issues with fuel-cell passenger car adoption. 

In the United States, the Hyundai Nexo crossover performs well and it very enjoyable to drive; but it's only sold in California due to lack of fueling infrastructure elsewhere. Given the slow development of the infrastructure, commercial applications may be a better fit for fuel cells—even as the automaker keeps pushing above and beyond with its fuel-cell products.