After false start, hydrogen car gets Hyundai reboot

Hyundai has become the first automaker to make its fuel-cell vehicles available to the Canadian public, announcing lease terms last Wednesday for its Tucson Fuel Cell Electric Vehicle. The Korean carmaker’s crossover will be available in early 2015 in Metro Vancouver for $599 per month, with maintenance and fuel both free over the three-year term.

Don Romano, Hyundai Canada’s president and chief executive, acknowledged at the launch event the persistent chicken-and-egg problem that has bedevilled fuel-cell vehicles and the refuelling infrastructure they require. But having proven the technology through three million kilometres of testing in a range of climates, Hyundai is now willing to plant the seed for a new segment in the auto industry, he said.

A Hyundai representative elaborated that the company thought it had chosen well with its introductory fuel cell offering since SUVs and crossovers, such as the Tucson, recently surpassed sedans as the top-selling vehicle category in the United States. Hyundai was also able to engineer its fuel cell system to seamlessly fit into the Tucson, despite the loss of a few vertical centimetres of trunk space in the back.

Hyundai carefully emphasized at the event that it continues to support electric vehicles – its Kia division, for example, began selling the Soul EV in Canada in October. Its optimism around fuel cells, however, is based on the fact that not every customer will be satisfied with the range and charging limitations of battery-electric vehicles.

And while recharging times are generally a non-issue for EV owners who recharge their cars overnight, apartment dwellers who are unable to access an electrical outlet in their building’s common garage may find fuel-cell cars appealing. About one in eight Canadian households live in condominiums or apartments, and many homeowners lack garages or driveways in which to park their vehicles overnight for convenient charging. For drivers who can charge at home, electric vehicles can be an excellent option.

Fuel cells are most easily described as batteries that store their fuel externally. The Tucson’s fuel cell generates electricity (and water) when the hydrogen fuel reacts with the oxygen in air. The vehicle can be refuelled in about five minutes and has an estimated range of 426 km, thanks to hydrogen tanks that store fuel at 700 atmospheres (i.e., 10,000 pounds per square inch). And while there’s only one hydrogen station in Metro Vancouver that can that fill to this pressure – it’s in the suburb of Surrey – more are expected soon.

The B.C. government’s Renewable and Low Carbon Fuel Requirements Act mandates that fuel vendors gradually reduce the carbon intensity of the fuels they sell, said Eric Denhoff of the Canadian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association (CHFCA). Alternatively, they can obtain credits to achieve the same effect by funding alternative-fuels infrastructure, such as electric-car chargers or hydrogen fuel stations.

The CHFCA hopes this policy will result in 10 to 12 hydrogen filling stations in Metro Vancouver by the end of 2017.

As for the vehicle itself, a test drive demonstrated the Tucson was a smooth ride worthy of its price point. Its electric motor – fuel cell vehicles are a “flavour” of electric vehicle, and so are powered by electric motors – offered ample torque, making for effortless acceleration and handling. The cabin was as luxurious as one might expect for the lease terms – and very quiet.

Hyundai held its event near Vancouver’s posh Granville Island Market at the Arthur Erickson-designed Waterfall Building, so-named for the curtain of water that descends gracefully into a reflective pool in the courtyard. Perhaps the company wanted to play on the fact that water is a fuel cell vehicle’s only exhaust product.

Those in the Vancouver fuel-cell community would have recognized a deeper symbolism. The event was held in the Waterfall Building’s gallery, which was known for several years as the Ballard Lederer Gallery, after curators Jan Ballard and Ted Lederer. Jan Ballard is the daughter-in-law of the late Geoffrey Ballard, founder of Vancouver-area automotive fuel cell pioneer Ballard Power Systems.

Ballard Power Systems pivoted away from automotive fuel cell development several years ago, spinning part of the company off as AFCC, an engineering firm co-owned by Daimler and Ford. Though Ballard signed an engineering services contract with Volkswagen last year, it currently focuses on fuel cells for warehouse forklifts and backup power for cellphone towers.

Disclosure: The author works for Daimler- and Ford-owned fuel cell developer AFCC, and disclosed this to Hyundai Canada upon receiving an invitation to the event. They graciously set competitive considerations aside, and reaffirmed the offer to attend.

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