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FCVs are ‘a decade away’? They’re already here…

Fuel cell vehicle (FCV) technology has long been ‘ten years away’, but the cars are finally coming to market. Megatrends takes a drive in the ix35 Fuel Cell with Frank Meijer, who heads up Hyundai Europe's FCV programme. By Rachael Hogg

From the Great Horse Manure Crisis of the 19th century, to the concern over CO2 emissions today, each period in time has had its worries with transport. Even 200 years ago, people were considering alternatives to literally clean up the streets. Back then it was ostriches, which surprisingly never caught on, before the car arrived in 1886, led by a man marching down the road with a warning flag. The car may have caused less of a mess than horses, but fast forward to today and things look a little different. Increasingly stringent CO2 limits are being imposed by governments around the world, and once again there is a need to look to alternatives.

The fuel cell vehicle (FCV) has always been the technology that is ‘ten years away’, but Hyundai’s fuel cell version of the ix35 (sold as the Tucson in the US, and the Tucson ix in Korea) is here, and available. All that is needed now is to lower the cost, raise consumer awareness, and most importantly, develop a supporting infrastructure.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell, under the hood

When it comes to eco-friendly vehicles, OEMs are looking at downsizing, double clutch technology, turbocharging, cleaner diesels, or compressed natural gas (CNG), to make existing technology more efficient, says Frank Meijer, Team Leader, FCEV & Infrastructure Development at Hyundai Motor Europe. In Europe, particularly, plug-in hybrids and full EVs will bridge the gap before the ultimate goal: achieving a zero emission vehicle which drives completely on renewable power.

The ix35 Fuel Cell has many advantages. While ICE vehicles do rely on imported fuel and produce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, they offer long range, quick refuelling, are not particularly affected by weather, and are scalable. Battery EVs may have limited range, a long charge time, require considerable battery space, and have a performance that is impacted by weather, but they offer zero emissions driving, high fuel efficiency, instant torque, are quiet, and the power can be produced domestically. FCVs take the best aspects of both the ICE and BEV.

Zero emissions

ix35 Fuel CellThere are many advantages of moving to zero emissions technology: “On a daily basis in Europe, €1bn (US$1.34bn) worth of oil is imported, not counting the gas from Russia or Ukraine,” explains Meijer. “First, that is a considerable sum of money, but it would also help Europe to become more independent. Hydrogen can be produced locally, with renewable power.” Currently, around 95% of hydrogen is produced by burning fossil fuels or as a waste product of the chemical industry, but the EU has made it mandatory that the hydrogen being produced is at least 50% renewable. There is also the issue of reaching peak oil, which was detailed by a scientist at Shell in 1956. A recent study by BP suggested this could arrive sooner than thought, as there is a reserve of just 55 years left for oil production. Hydrogen, however, is easily produced, anywhere. Put very simply, all that is needed is water, and an electric current.

European infrastructure

Arguably the main barrier preventing FCVs selling in significant numbers is the lack of infrastructure. In Europe currently, there are around 50-60 fuelling stations, of which 27 are public and operate at a pressure of 700 bars. “That is a big gap between the couple of thousand fuelling stations you normally have,” says Meijer. However, it should be noted that there was a similar infrastructure situation in the early years of the ICE, and those drivers managed before the infrastructure developed; Meijer says he is satisfied if the infrastructure for FCVs takes ten or 20 years to develop.

In Europe, a considerable amount of infrastructure investment is planned over the coming years. The EU announced an investment of €92m in July, focused on projects related to hydrogen in mobility, and refuelling infrastructure. There is also dedicated investment of €32m to help with the deployment of vehicles in 2015. The HyFive project is in full swing, and Hyundai has promised to supply 75 out of the 110 vehicles required for the project.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel CellGermany has plans for 50 stations by 2015, and 400 by 2023, which is a huge commitment, and the UK plans to have 13 stations by 2015, 26 by 2020, and 65 by 2023. “The UK and Germany are the key pillars in Europe, and can set the example for countries like the Netherlands, Belgium, and countries that will be following like France,” says Meijer. “However, you don’t need too many stations because of the range. The investment is approximately anywhere between €1m and €2m for each station. That is a tremendous amount of money and funding is necessary.”

Infrastructure will naturally be easier to develop in certain countries, particularly smaller countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, and Switzerland which will be well served from a handful of stations.

In the first few years of the ix35 Fuel Cell vehicle, Hyundai is looking for particular customers that will enable the next generation of deployment, which is expected in 2017. The focus at the moment is on supplying vehicles to companies interested in hydrogen, government fleets, and research institutes. The second step will be to supply corporate companies with an interest in FCV technology, before the final step of becoming ready for mainstream customers, at which point, it is hoped that the price will have significantly dropped.

Consumer awareness

For potential future drivers, Meijer says that the concept of an FCV is still mostly unknown: “It’s difficult as consumers don’t know whether it is a fluid or a gas, or that only water comes out. There is a considerable quantity of information available on FCV technology, far more than is expected for ICE cars, and most of what is available does little to attract mainstream attention. Yet consumers don’t really want to know, says Meijer: “We would love to do more to get these cars into normal hands, because when you drive the car, that is when you see how easy it all is.”

Lowering cost

In the US, the Tucson Fuel Cell is available to lease for US$499 a month, including fuel and maintenance. To achieve this price, Hyundai Motor America has used its zero emission credits to reduce the price of its FCV, rather than using them to generate a profit like other OEMs. The European pricing has still not been announced.

There are several aspects of the ix35 Fuel Cell that currently prevent Hyundai from marketing the car at the same price as an ICE. The double storage tanks with an aluminium inner body, plastic layer, and carbon fibre housing are the second most expensive part in the vehicle. The most expensive is the fuel stack: “The car itself is exactly the same as a normal ix35 in every other way,” explains Meijer. The vehicle is also still in low production numbers, keeping the cost high. “The number of engines that you make helps to drive down the price. That’s something which will take at least several years to happen. As soon as we can dramatically increase the production volume, we will absolutely be able to drive down the cost of the car.”

With the difficulties ahead for FCVs, what was the advantage to Hyundai of going first? “The biggest advantage is to be known as the OEM that started worldwide production and got to market first. You don’t want to be the second person on the moon, you want to be remembered for taking the first step,” grins Meijer.

Both Toyota and Honda are expected to release their FCVs next year, which along with adding some needed competition for the ix35 Fuel Cell, will help to raise awareness of the technology, and start to bring costs down. Those OEMs, and a growing number of potential FCV fans, are hoping that the FCV will not turn out to be the ostrich of the 19th century.

Driving the ix35 Fuel Cell: A ‘normal’ experience

One of the first and most striking things about the ix35 Fuel Cell is just how ‘normal’ it is. If it weren’t for the ‘FUEL CELL’ badge emblazoned on the side of the test vehicle, no-one would ever know. While a power indicator has replaced the rev counter, a driver could easily be sitting inside a normal crossover vehicle. Hyundai Europe’s Frank Meijer has said that doing this was a conscious decision by the OEM, but for the next model which is expected in 2017, no final decision has been made on whether to maintain the vehicle’s normality, or to express its unique appeal through bolder aesthetics.

Hyundai ix35 Fuel Cell Interior

Refuelling is a similarly normal experience. One of the significant benefits FCVs have over EVs is the ability to refuel in the same time that it takes to refuel an ICE (around three minutes), and just as easily, compared with the lengthy charging time of an EV: 20 minutes at best on a rapid charger, or three to five hours or longer on a slow charger. To refuel the ix35, the hydrogen pipe is clipped on to the vehicle, so there is no possibility of leakage, and there is no smell, as seen with gasoline, and no fuel cloud, as seen with liquid petroleum gas. The price of hydrogen is still very high, but at some stations hydrogen producers have covered most of the cost, as the very low number of vehicles currently on the road will not mean much of a loss to them. As the number of FCVs on the road increases, the the industrial price of hydrogen is expected to fall.

Driving is where the differences begin to appear. One of the immediately noticeable features is the lack of noise, and instant torque, which when combined offer a very smooth and comfortable driving experience. The vehicle offers output of 100KW, and all that is emitted from the tailpipe is water. The ix35 has a top speed of 160kph (99mph) and a 0-100kph (0-62mph) time of 12.5 seconds. While this is probably fast enough for most, Meijer points out that in some European countries, consumers would generally prefer a higher top speed.

This article appeared in the Q3 2014 issue of Automotive Megatrends Magazine. Follow this link to download the full issue

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