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Hyundai ix35 FCEV Review (first drive)

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Hydrogen powered cars are coming. Is this the future of motoring?

Unknown to many, Hyundai has been developing fuel cell-powered electric vehicles since 2000. More than a decade later, the technology has matured to the point of being ready for mass production.

The mad rush to capitalise on alternative fuel technologies is fast progressing. Everything from ultra-efficient diesels to electric and fuel cell-powered vehicles is surfacing. No one really knows which technology will triumph over the other and there is even the likelihood that numerous technologies could co-exist successfully.

Hyundai believes there is a case for both full battery-powered electric vehicles and fuel cell-powered electric vehicles. The difference, at least in the short term, will be range. As a standard battery-powered electric vehicle currently has a range of around 150km, a fuel cell can extend that to more than 600km.

So it makes sense to have smaller, city-dwelling cars powered by full EV systems while sticking with fuel cells for the bigger, more robust vehicles that will need the range.

The test model that Hyundai has spent the great majority of its resources developing as a fuel cell vehicle is the Hyundai IX35, known as Tucson in the Korean market. Although work initially began in 2000 on the Hyundai Santa Fe, the Tucson's smaller body made it a more suitable candidate for introducing the technology.

As it stands today, prototype Hyundai ix35 FCEV vehicles have a 650km range and accelerate from 0-100km/h in 12.9 seconds. From the outside it’s basically impossible to tell them apart from conventional ix35s, however, they do weigh a good 200kg more (a minor inconvenience that should sort itself out as the technology matures).

As I have written previously about the Mercedes-Benz B-Class F-CELL vehicles, the hydrogen anxiety of explosions is unfounded in this application. Fuel cell vehicles made by all manufacturers are just as safe as their petrol- or diesel-powered brothers. Hyundai has carried out extensive testing to prove that even in the most extreme circumstances, a chance of an explosion is basically non-existent.

In one test Hyundai started a fire in the ashtray of a petrol ix35 and a fuel cell ix35 to see which would pose the most danger. The petrol model’s fuel tank exploded after about 40 minutes while the FCEV's onboard technology (such as the pressure release device) allowed enough hydrogen to escape from the tanks to stop any explosion.

Fleets of ix35 FCEV vehicles have undergone more than two million real-world kilometres as part of the US and Korean governments' hydrogen programs. In case you’re wondering, hydrogen is one of the easiest elements in the universe to harness. The chemical reaction of hydrogen and oxygen produces clean water, but it also happens to allow for the production of electricity. A zero-emission, all-natural system that can power vehicles worldwide? It sounds too good to be true, but in this case, it’s not. So what’s the catch?

There is going to be an enormous demand for infrastructure, of which little currently exists in most parts of the world. While the Europeans (particularly Scandinavian countries) are decades ahead of Australia’s feeble attempts at alternative fuel infrastructure, the technology is advancing further ahead each and every day. The beauty of fuel cell vehicles is the range; the higher the range, the fewer hydrogen stations required for the technology to work. Unlike electric cars which need a good seven to eight hours for a complete recharge (or about 45 minutes from a fast charge station), you can fill up the hydrogen tanks of a Hyundai FCEV vehicle in less than five minutes. A little longer than a conventional petrol/diesel vehicle, but a far cry from eight hours.

But it’s not just the European and Asian nations that are pushing for hydrogen infrastructure (and supporting the vehicles with massive subsidies). The North Americans are championing the technology too. Apart from the already existing hydrogen stations in the States, there are plans to put 100 hydrogen stations in New York over the next decade. Meanwhile the German government has committed to installing at least 1000 hydrogen recharge stations by 2020. South Korea will have at least 100 by then. The list of commitments goes on. As for Australia, we are still debating the carbon tax with little to not thought by the federal government into alternative vehicle fuel technologies.

The Koreans have worked out that if they can capture just 20 percent of the hydrogen by-product produced by their industries, they can fuel up to 500,000 fuel cell vehicles every year. Essentially that means the fuel already exists and is currently simply wasted. This is another advantage over electric cars, which may put a strain on power supplies (particularity if it’s not clean energy),

Leaving all the politics behind, the Hyundai ix35 fuel cell is in its own right a great car to own. It has all the practicality and features of a standard Hyundai ix35, but simply doesn’t pollute (water vapour being the only by-product). To the average person it would be just a standard ix35, but under the bonnet sits a 100kW electric powerplant that consumes just one litre of hydrogen for every 30km (or 3.3 litres/100km). The hydrogen is stored in carbon fibre-reinforced tanks beneath the vehicle, which can even withstand a bullet. Hydrogen doesn’t directly power the ix35, it’s simply used to produce electricity which then powers the electric engine.

Hyundai brought CarAdvice to the eco-technology research institute facility in Seoul where a team of very smart engineers and researchers (with more PhD degrees than wall space to hang them) are working on producing clean-energy solutions for the Korean giant.

From 2012 to 2014, Hyundai and Kia will sell 2000 FCEV vehicles to fleets and private buyers. In 2015, Hyundai will begin mass production and currently the company expects the price of the vehicle to be around $US50,000, but aims to have the car sold to customers at around the $US30,000 mark, after incentives and other arrangements. Hyundai’s principle engineer and general manager of its fuel cell group, Mr Byung Ki Ahn, said that unless the price is right, the general public will not adopt new technology on a large scale. According to him, Hyundai will sell its FCEV vehicles at very low margin to allow the technology to mature.

During our short test drive of the ix35 fuel cell, it’s fair to say the vehicle performed exactly the same as a normal ix35. Although it makes little to no noise, it does make an artificial sound before it sets off to give warning to nearby pedestrians. An LCD screen in the centre console displays information showing the flow of energy through the car (similar to a Toyota Prius system). Acceleration is not as brisk as a full EV car (such as the Hyundai BlueOn or Nissan LEAF) and as we understand it, it’s due to the speed in which energy can be taken out of the car’s batteries. Lithium-ion powered electric cars tend to accelerate quicker as energy can be accessed faster.

Like all electric cars, there is only the one gear and the motor is computer controlled. So if you want to go backwards, the computer will simply send a command to the electric engine to reverse spin.

Hyundai Australia says it’s currently too early to know if fuel cell vehicles will come to Australia when they go in to mass production in four years' time. Nonetheless, given the current federal government’s lack of support for alternative-technology infrastructure, the arrival of fuel cell vehicles here may still be a decade away.

One of the benefits of a lazy government is that it will give the technologies time to work themselves out. The potential for one technology to dominate is still possible, so fuel cell or full-electric vehicles are not best friends, yet.

The only real question hanging over fuel cell and hydrogen technology is long-term viability. What will happen once battery technology advances far enough to allow a full electric vehicle to manage similar range capabilities? Given how far batteries have come in the past 20 years, and going by research conducted by the US Department of Energy, the likelihood of high-capacity quick-charge batteries is very high.

It's too early to say, but with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Hyundai and Honda (just to name a few) spending big R&D dollars on hydrogen fuel vehicles, there is definitely a 'watch this space' sticker floating around.