Academics and eco tech trailblazers tell us that cars running on hydrogen-powered fuel cells are the holy grail for true emissions-free mobility, so we put the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell to the test on a trip from Venice to Frankfurt.
Most people agree that global warming is a disturbing reality – and Venice, more than other city on the planet, is in the firing line if sea levels rise.
Dubbed the floating city, Venice is under threat from all sides. Not only does the place flood more than 100 times a year, the entire city itself is sinking at the rate of one to two millimetres per year. Global warming here would be nothing short of a disaster.
It’s not like car companies aren’t doing their part to turn things around. Many have poured gazillions into petrol/electric hybrid technology, or like Tesla, are pioneering battery-powered EVs.
California, known to be the toughest state in the US when it comes to emissions policing, currently places a high value on Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles by offering twice the rebate of battery electric vehicles.
Early adopters who choose to buy a Fuel Cell EV from the likes of Honda, Mercedes-Benz, or Hyundai, can get an instant $5000 rebate, whereas battery EVs like the Tesla Model S and BMW i3 only get $2500 back. Attracting even less favour from California’s clean-air groups are pseudo EVs like the Holden Volt and Plug-in Prius, which qualify for the minimum $1500 rebate.
Buyers still need that kind of incentive, as the ix35 Fuel Cell is prohibitively expensive to produce and only available in left-hand drive, at least until more car makers get involved and technology becomes more cost efficient.
Unlike Germany, where Hyundai’s customers can either choose to buy a fuel cell vehicle for around €64,000 ($100,000) or lease for €599 ($939) a month once a sizeable deposit of €12, 945 is made, Californians are only offered a leasing agreement over 36 months at the rate of US$499 ($688). The deal also requires a US$2999 ($4134) deposit, but that includes free refueling over the entire lease term.
Toyota has also thrown its sizeable hat into the ring and becomes the fourth global carmaker to get serious about hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles with their Mirai – available in Japan from 21 October, with sales in California and Europe expected to follow shortly.
But for the moment, it’s Korean auto giant Hyundai who appear to be leading the charge towards a total emissions-free planet earth, as the world’s first global carmaker to take a fuel cell electric vehicle into mass production.
Their motivation is simple enough; Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. In fact, over 75 per cent of the universe’s mass is based on the stuff, so feasibly there’s a limitless supply available.
In the long term, hydrogen will be produced using renewable energy, such as surplus wind power or solar energy, but for now much of the production is by steam methane reforming with natural gas, which generates around 30 per cent less emissions than using traditional fossil fuels.
Eventually, there will be fuel cell vehicles that will employ a cyclical process of re-oxidation that can use and re-use water to make hydrogen, but at the moment, that’s still science fiction.
For the here and now, we have the Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell to drive and the only emission from this SUV’s exhaust pipe is good old H20 – yep, water.
This is actually the fourth-generation of the FCEV for the company – and given the standard ix35 has recently been replaced by the all-new Tucson, we can expect a brand new version to arrive in 2016.
As we exit the Venice car park in our pre-production ix35, the most futuristic thing I notice is it’s virtually silent and there are none of the usual vibrations you get with an internal combustion engine vehicle. But then, that’s how it is with most EVs.
Inside it’s the same story, with pretty much all the standard ix35 fare, but for one or two exceptions; a power metre to replace the rev counter and a few FCEV-specific graphic displays.
The infotainment screen offers some convenient functionality, like the various propulsion settings on offer. Fuel Cell mode gives you the standard drive setting. Idle Charging mode generates power in the fuel cell stack to charge the battery, while Power Assist mode takes electricity stored in the fuel cell stack and combines it with electricity stored in the high-voltage battery.
Hyundai’s FCEV also uses mild regenerative braking, where the kinetic energy of the vehicle is converted back to electricity through the motor to recharge the battery.
Just like petrol, hydrogen is flammable and replacing the standard fuel tank is the hydrogen storage system, consisting of composite tanks that hold the hydrogen gas at a pressure of 700-bar for a maximum range of 594km on a single fill of 5.64kg.
For safety, the tanks are incredibly tough – a combination of carbon-fibre and aluminium ensure the gas held under pressure is every bit as safe to the public as petrol. Hyundai says fuel cell vehicles have undergone stringent safety testing including crash, flame and even firearms.
Put simply, a fuel cell is a storage device that converts hydrogen into electricity. But it needs two feeds - H2 and Oxygen, which have a reaction, and the only by-product is water. Multiple fuel cells are combined to form a fuel cell stack in order to magnify this reaction for greater power and longer range.
Electricity generated from the fuel cell stack is first transmitted to an inverter, before being sent to the motor to drive the vehicle.
So how does it all translate as a driving experience?
First impressions of this ix35 Fuel Cell is that it feels like a regular SUV, though it does have those EV traits, which is a good thing, as you get instant throttle response and all 100kW and 300Nm of torque on-song from the get-go. So it’s punchy out of the gate, but it still takes 12.5 seconds to reach 100km/h.
There’s no problem winding this hydrogen powered Hyundai up to an indicated 180km/h either, at least on the de-restricted speed zones on the German autobahns.
We needed every single one of those Newton-metres as we started our climb from Bolzano in Italy to Innsbruck in Austria, over the alps to a peak of around 2300 metres. Progress on the steeper switch- backs isn’t great, and that initial punch runs out of steam fairly quickly, especially at these heights.
Hyundai says the problem can be traced back to the vehicle’s ECU (Electronic Control Unit), which wasn’t specifically tuned for high altitude driving – meaning the lack of oxygen at over 2000 metres will affect the engine’s performance. Other than that, it’s no different from driving your regular SUV.
Refuelling is a surprisingly conventional process too, as we found out in Munich after crossing through Italy and Austria. In fact, we stopped at a regular Total service station and lined up beside what looked like a normal fuel bowser, only this one pumped hydrogen gas into the ix35, and all it took was around three minutes for another 500-plus kilometre range.
Charging a battery powered electric vehicle can take hours. Even Tesla’s superchargers require 30 minutes of charge time for an 80 per cent charge for its top-shelf Model S P85D.
In Europe, Hydrogen costs €9 ($14.05) or just over €50 for a full tank of the gas. Mind, it’s not as easy to find a hydrogen filling station as it is to find a powerpoint to charge a battery EV, and currently that’s something of an issue.
Across Europe, there are approximately 80 of these hydrogen refueling stations, but that number is growing all the time. There’s a similar number in Japan and the United States, too.
In Australia, there’s only one, and it’s privately owned by Hyundai Motor Australia. Certainly Australian Governments (both federal and state) should be doing a lot more towards the future of transportation, because the future is already here in Europe and we’re falling behind.
Australia has an abundance of wind and sun, and with the right incentives, could be producing clean hydrogen for zero emissions mobility.
The fact that the ix35 has already been replaced by the global-selling Tucson is unimportant to the end game of finding a viable solution to clean, green, personal mobility.
This trip has proven two things; with government incentives, Hydrogen power is a reality. And as a complete petrol head and lover of cars, I’m no longer concerned with the world running out of fossil fuels, because the car of the future is already here, and it’s emissions free.