In the headlong race to create profitable, scalable, zero-emissions cars to cut down worldwide CO2 emissions, battery electric vehicles (BEVs) have dominated the limelight thanks to media darlings like the charismatic Elon Musk.
But there’s an alternative idea that’s danced on the periphery for years, the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle (FCEV) – an electric car powered by pressurised hydrogen gas, pumped into your car just like petrol or diesel today, but without the CO2 or NOx emissions.
Hydrogen FCEVs have long been considered the best solution for trucks and buses, because an EV version of something so big would need an expensive and heavy battery storage array, and owners won’t tolerate the long recharge times associated therewith.
Indeed, Hyundai is making 26,000 hydrogen FCEV buses for its home market as we speak. It's not messing about.
But the technology has often been written off as unsuitable for the average family or city car, because the infrastructure network for EVs is cheaper to roll out, and the achievable driving range is already north of 500km and climbing. That covers almost everyone.
And yet global giants Toyota and Honda, with the Mirai and Clarity respectively, have made FCEV cars alongside BEVs. As has Hyundai, which established itself as a global leader in the field with the ix35/Tucson version that launched in 2013.
That car was a toe in the water, as it sought to rectify longevity issues with the fuel-cell stack. A solution has been found, and a new car made. It’s called the Hyundai Nexo, a bespoke SUV with the very latest FCEV drivetrain that’s road ready as of… Right now.
How does it work?
Pressurised hydrogen is pumped into the car’s tanks, passed through a membranous fuel cell stack where it’s mixed with atmospheric oxygen, and becomes useable electricity to power the motor. The emission from this is H2O – water, you chemistry buffs – and heat.
It’s a BEV that has its own on-board power station, rather than needing an external powerpoint or fast-charger. This means that battery arrays, if you want to fit them, need only be small to supplement the system and capture the excess through brake regeneration.
Incidentally, this on-board FCEV power station can be plugged into the grid and generate power for about five average Korean houses for a day or so. Nissan does a similar thing with its Leaf BEV.
The real key figure is the Nexo’s 600km of driving range with no CO2 or NOx emissions, and a refilling time of five minutes from a hydrogen refill station – a fraction of the time it takes to recharge even the most advanced battery array underpinning a BEV today.
Naturally there are issues. Hydrogen – an abundant element that usually exists as part of another compound – is often mass produced through a technique called natural gas reforming, which produces CO2, though it’s still cleaner than driving a car with fossil fuel.
But creating hydrogen at scale can also be done with renewables, and global CO2 reduction targets have led many to believe this will become an essential part of our energy production, security and storage as we go forward. California already requires 33 per cent of commercial hydrogen gas to be sourced this way, and that figure will climb.
Okay, but is it safe? We’ve all seen footage of the Hindenburg disaster, and we know hydrogen is volatile around flames. The Nexo has three on-board hydrogen gas storage tanks totalling a combined 156L, so are we looking at a rolling bomb?
Well, the company repeatedly shot these carbon-fibre-wrapped tanks (about two inches thick) with armour-piercing rounds, and threw them onto flames, and crashed the Nexo into a wall at 80km/h, with no piercing. It’s also installed numerous fail-safes, plus a final resort system that concentrates the leaking gas into a column to control the explosion.
The actual issues at the moment are the dearth of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, and the exorbitant costs of such a developing and complex system. Which is why most hydrogen lobby groups have brought oil and gas companies into the fold.
Shell, BP, Caltex and others would love to have hydrogen service stations where you go to buy their marked-up bread, milk and chocolate. This is already happening around the globe, with hundreds of millions being spent.
Anyway, to the car itself. The Nexo’s collective tank capacity of 156L, apparently equating to about six kilos (in LA this would cost about $60, a figure that’ll drop fast) to fill, gives you that 609km range in the real world. Seeing a trip computer with kg/km as a fuel measure is an adjustment.
This fuel-cell system apparently uses its hydrogen fuel more effectively, with fewer component energy losses than Hyundai’s old ix35 version, operating at about 60 per cent efficiency across the system.
The outputs are 120kW of power and 395Nm of torque, equivalent to a leading turbo-diesel. The 0–100km/h dash can be done in 9.2 seconds and the top speed is a claimed 179km/h.
The car drives just like a BEV. It’s whisper quiet, immediately responsive thanks to the battery giving you a nudge and addressing the fuel-cells’ lag, and our indicated range was spot on. And remember, like an EV, the Nexo has no emissions.
Better, it actually cleans the air you drive through. Air filters get rid of 99.9 per cent of particulates, Hyundai claims. It also reduces an amount of fine-dust pollution, through filtration, equivalent to what would be emitted by two diesel cars over the same trip.
From a durability standpoint, Hyundai says it expects trouble-free motoring of at least 10 years and 160,000km, and the Nexo will cold-start at -30C, as well. The company also suggests it won’t suffer LPG-style issues in Australian heat.
Design-wise, Hyundai is cleverly tapping into the worldwide SUV boom, giving the Nexo crossover cues. At 4670mm long it’s a bit bigger than a Tucson, and there’s 140mm of clearance.
The company cites its “pure and calm” design, with ‘floating’ roofline, as well as aero-enhancing stuff such as Tesla-style flush door handles that deploy automatically, plus an air curtain near the front fender, a chassis under-cover, and D-pillar ducts. The drag coefficient rating is 0.329.
The interior comprises a wide black dash with two big LCD displays. One has the driving information, the other has the sat-nav, connectivity and infotainment features. The car’s shift-by-wire tech gives you a floating console, with storage room below.
There are old-school physical buttons for the drive modes and climate control, while a lower tray has the wireless charging pad and USB point. It’s all very modern and slick, despite some cheap plastics lower down.
Hyundai claims a 839L cargo space, despite the on-board battery being under the boot floor. However, an FCEV system is complex and large, meaning you don’t get the packaging benefits of a flat-floor BEV. Rear seat space is fairly modest.
Another aspect of the Nexo, a rolling showcase if ever there was one, is its driver-assistance tech. Earlier this month, three Nexos and two Genesis G80s updated with the latest autonomous driving tech travelled 190km from Seoul to Pyeongchang without any driver input.
According to the company’s study, the vehicles were set to cruise mode, moved in response to the traffic flow, changed lanes, overtook slow traffic and navigated wireless toll gates. It works through a combination of highly detailed maps and outboard sensors.
The regular car we drove wasn’t quite that advanced, though it has industry-first surround-view monitors that show drivers the rear and side views when changing lanes in the instrument panel. A bit like Honda’s LaneWatch system, but in 360 degrees.
The Nexo also has one of the most sophisticated radar and camera-based lane assist functions we’ve driven, given it kept us in the middle of our lane on an admittedly well marked and mostly straight Korean tollway, and a flawless radar cruise system that uses GPS to slow you down to the speed limit automatically, even in average-speed zones!
The only disappointment here was the lack of a Tesla-style lane-change assist that’ll activate when you indicate.
Ride and handling are pretty good, with light steering and comfortable, soft damper and spring set-up. HMCA will retune it for local roads, though it’s unlikely to be a huge job. The system’s complexity does add weight, which you feel when pushing on with things.
So, what about this technology powerhouse’s Australian future? The ACT government will buy 20 Nexos and power them with a wind farm, with the aim to use them as company cars. HMCA wants to broaden this by 2019 and sign up more clients.
Hyundai Australia has an old, refurbished hydrogen filling station at its headquarters, but our infrastructure is lacking beyond this. However, there’s movement from many state governments, particularly South Australia, as well as at least one Melbourne council.
FCEV trucks and buses will be rolling out with scale pretty soon, and this infrastructure can be tapped into.
That said, it’s a watch-and-wait exercise before public sales, and even if it were to launch, the lack of incentives would make it expensive indeed. The Toyota Mirai FCEV costs about AUD$75K in the US and AUD$115K in the UK, and that's a smaller car...
For now, Hyundai will sell BEVs such as the Ioniq and Kona Electric here from later this year.
But then the Nexo is really a statement of intent, a message to the world that Hyundai considers this tech viable and effective. Not a sales leader. A few thousand a year around the globe will surely do. At worst, it’s a demonstration that the system has upside and is scalable, which will reduce costs and improve packaging through greater R&D spend.
Who’s to say which zero-emissions drivetrain will take off? Perhaps it isn’t a zero-sum game if the mutual goal is just to keep fossil fuels in the ground, where they belong. The future isn’t attainable yet, but if things work out to plan, this fuel cell won’t be a hard sell.