After publishing a few critical articles about hydrogen mobility on this site last year, both by myself and a guest author, most notably about the technology when compared to “traditional” Battery Electric Vehicles, I was given the chance to be among the first to drive a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle in Europe: the Hyundai ix35 FCEV. You would’ve seen the pictures yesterday if you followed me on Twitter. In the meantime, the technology has made progress and looks ever more promising, although there’s still a long way to go before hydrogen becomes a viable alternative to gasoline or diesel for a private car buyer.
While Honda has had a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle available for lease in California since 2008, the FCX Clarity has never been able to reach mass production, with less than 100 cars delivered to customers. Other hydrogen test cars from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and General Motors never made it past the prototype phase. This makes Hyundai the first automaker to start mass production of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Vehicle, when it started production of 10.000 Hyundai ix35 FCEV early this year. The South-Koreans beat Toyota to the honor, as the Japanese brand only recently started taking orders for its Mirai FCEV.
This means the ix35 FCEV is a huge image booster for Hyundai, in the same way the Prius hybrid was for Toyota, helping the brand establish itself as a technology leader and a “green” automaker. Driving the car on public roads in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, the ix35 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle has convinced me that the technology for this type of vehicle is indeed ready, which solves the chicken-or-egg problem with this new technology. You see, one of the problems with hydrogen mobility is the matter of what comes first, the cars or the charging/refilling infrastructure? Because automakers are reluctant to invest hundreds of millions into developing a car that nobody will buy because there’s no fuel station (whereas Battery Electric Cars can be charged at every home and office from already existing sockets), while investments into an infrastructure of hydrogen fuel stations won’t materialize until there’s a substantial demand for them from vehicles already on the road.
Thanks to the arrival of the Hyundai ix35 FCEV and substantial investments by the European Union (17,9 billion Euro’s invested in hydrogen fuel cell technology between 2015 and 2021), the infrastructure of hydrogen fuel stations will start to grow quickly, most notably in Germany. Currently in Europe, there are 29 hydrogen fuel stations, but this will grow to 50 stations in Germany alone by the end of this year. This figure is expected to grow to 400 German hydrogen fuel stations by 2023, when the domestic carmakers Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Audi will have their mass-market Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles on the market as well.
Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle
In contrast to Honda’s FCX Clarity and Toyota’s Mirai FCEV, Hyundai has decided to offer its first hydrogen car in a familiar package instead of in a stand-alone design. From the outside, the ix35 FCEV looks almost exactly like a regular ix35 with a gasoline or diesel engine. It already features the new grille design the brand has revealed for the model’s successor, which will be named Tucson again, and the filler cap is a bit larger and has “Fuel Cell” written on it. The interior is exactly the same as an ordinary ix35, although the FCEV is fully loaded with keyless go, satellite navigation, back-up camera, leather seat upholstery. Four hydrogen sensors in the interior give a warning in the exceptional case of a hydrogen leak, which is comforting yet alarming at the same time.
The gauge cluster is slightly different, as it shows the current fuel consumption in kilograms per 100km instead of liters per 100km, and it has a refueling counter. Like in a hybrid car, the infotainment system can display the four different modes of the Hydrogen Fuel Cell system. In Fuel Cell Mode, hydrogen flows from the tank to the fuel cell, which produces electricity for the electric motor to power the wheels. In Idle Charging Mode, the fuel cell charges the battery pack. In Power Assist Mode, the power in the battery pack is used to assist the fuel cell to reach maximum power and performance. In Regenerative Braking Mode, the kinetic energy is converted into electricity during braking and used to recharge the battery pack.
The floor of the trunk is slightly raised to make room for one of the fuel tanks below it, so the slightly smaller trunk space and increased loading height make the FCEV slightly less practical as the family shopping car, but that’s the same for hybrid cars which need space for their battery packs.
You might expect to find something revolutionary when you open the hood, but instead there’s plastic galore, like in any other car these days. So you can’t really tell there’s an actual power plant and an electric motor under all that plastic. It does have a lot of “high voltage” warning stickers, though…
On the road
So how does it drive? Well, it drives much like a “regular” electric car, meaning the driving experience feels a bit more detached than it does in a gasoline or diesel-powered car. I’m not sure if that’s a result of the lack of engine sound or the lack of a physical connection between the accelerator and the engine, but driving an electric car feels a bit like floating, and a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle is no different in this respect. It also shoots off the line like any other regular EV, thanks to the immediate torque of the electric motor, available from idle. In corners the car feels a bit heavier than a regular ix35, and that’s a result of the added weight by the battery pack and reinforced fuel cell tanks, which makes the ix35 FCEV 550kgs heavier than its gasoline-powered counterpart.
During the test drive in the city of Rotterdam, it also became ever more apparent that the lack of engine noise from an electric car in the city is not an issue that should be overlooked easily. As long as pedestrians and cyclists aren’t used to the presence of silent electric cars, they tend to trust their ears as much as their eyes when deciding to cross a road, and it could lead to dangerous situations on the road.
One difference that struck me immediately was the lack of a “regeneration-effect”, which is typical for Battery Electric Vehicles. With that I mean the effect that a BEV slows down hard when you take your foot off the accelerator, even without touching the brake pedal. This is a result of the car being programmed to recharge its batteries using its kinetic energy, and therefore slows down on the electric motor. This effect is stronger on some EVs than on others, and in the cars with the heaviest “engine brake”, this has been known to cause nausea to some sensitive people. But because the batteries of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle are much smaller than those of a BEV, this regeneration effect is almost non-existent and the car slows down much more fluently, more like a conventional car with an Internal Combustion Engine.
Pros and Cons of Fuel Cell EVs over Battery EVs
The advantages of a Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle over a Battery Electric Vehicle are the faster filling times and longer range. Fully charging the batteries of a BEV still takes at least one hour at a quick charger and as much as 8 hours from a regular wall socket, while an FCEV can be refilled in less than 3 minutes, similar to filling a gasoline or diesel car at your familiar Shell station. With a full tank of 5,64 kg of hydrogen at 700 bar, a range of almost 600km is possible in the ix35 FCEV, more than that of a much more expensive Tesla Model S and more than double that of a cheaper Nissan Leaf or Renault Zoe.
The disadvantages are in the lack of charging/refueling infrastructure and regulations about driving through tunnels and using parking garages. Building a hydrogen fuel station can cost anywhere between € 1 million and € 2 million, and hundreds of these stations are needed before private buyers are willing to consider an FCEV as a viable alternative to their gasoline or diesel powered car. And driving around with 5 kgs of a highly explosive gas at enormous pressure in your car would normally require licensing for the transportation of dangerous goods, besides not being allowed in tunnels and parking garages. Especially when the number of FCEVs on the road grows, some regulation may need to be amended.
The Hyundai ix35 FCEV costs € 55.000,- excl. VAT in Europe, which is about twice as much as a diesel-powered equivalent. The cost of fuel is between that of a similar gasoline-powered car and that of a diesel-engined car. At an estimated hydrogen consumption of 0,95kg/100km and a hydrogen price of around € 8,- per kg, the ix35 FCEV has a fuel cost price of € 7,60 per kilometer, compared to € 6,84 per kilometer for a diesel-powered car with a fuel consumption of 5,7 l/100km and a fuel price of € 1,20 per liter, or € 10,15 per kilometer for a gasoline-powered car with a fuel consumption of 7 l/100km and a fuel price of € 1,45.
Or explained in a way that may be easier to understand: with a full tank of hydrogen you can drive almost 600 kilometers and it will set you back €45,-. Of course, charging a Battery Electric Vehicle at home is cheaper, depending on the price of electricity in your country, regular rate or nightsaver etc, a full charge of a Tesla Model S will cost anywhere between €7,- and € 17,- and will give you half the range of the ix35.
There’s only one caveat to this comparison: European governments have decided not to levy any excise duties on hydrogen used to power cars – yet. This is another way to subsidize the new technology get a jump start while in its infancy. But as soon as hydrogen mobility takes off in the mass market, expect governments to quickly raise the excise duty on hydrogen to make up for the lost taxes on gasoline and diesel.
Maintenance on the electric motor will be similar to that of a BEV, and easier and cheaper than on an Internal Combustion Engine, which has much more moving parts and needs regular oil changes. On the other side, the added third of weight will result in higher tire wear.
Being the first to bring a mass-produced Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle to the market gives Hyundai bragging rights for years to come, even when there’s still a lot of hurdles to be taken before hydrogen mobility becomes reality. But those hurdles are further upstream, for example in how to sustainably store energy in hydrogen, or how to efficiently distribute and store hydrogen itself. These technological issues are likely to be resolved within a few years time, but the in-car technology is already available today. The Hyundai ix35 looks, feels and drives much like a conventional gasoline powered version or any other EV, with a few minor distinctions.