The fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) is an automotive holy grail that promises the low emissions of a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) with the...
The fuel-cell vehicle (FCV) is an automotive holy grail that promises the low emissions of a battery-electric vehicle (BEV) with the range and refueling convenience of a gasoline-powered car. But with the exception of roadgoing experiments such as Honda’s FCX and Clarity, the FCV always seems years away.
Available only as a three-year lease, the Hyundai Tucson brings the FCV closer, costing drivers $499 per month plus $2999 down. In California, where the crossover is marketed exclusively, the state will pay the down payment and then some with a $5000 subsidy, meaning the monthly payment works out to $443. To sweeten the deal, Hyundai picks up the hydrogen-fuel tab, probably because federal incentives for FCVs go straight to the manufacturer.
In simplest terms, the fuel cell makes its electricity from an electrochemical reaction between hydrogen and air. Hydrogen atoms stored in high-pressure tanks pass through a membrane that strips away their electrons, creating the electricity to power a drive motor. Water—from hydrogen protons combining with air on the other side of the membrane—exits the tailpipe.
Hydrogen may be the most abundant element in the universe, but isolating it on earth requires work. An FCV’s total greenhouse-gas production—everything from vehicle manufacturing to fuel distribution—depends on how its fuel is created.
Hydrogen can be accumulated in a number of ways, but the simplest method is electrolysis. If the electricity that splits the hydrogen from oxygen comes from a renewable source, and the hydrogen is piped to the fueling station, an FCV has half the greenhouse-gas impact of a BEV charged on California’s power grid, where electricity sources are varied.
No matter how it’s made, finding a hydrogen station isn’t easy. Los Angeles has six public stations. In most of the country, there aren’t any. By the end of 2016, California should have 48 hydrogen fueling stations. But for now the Tucson Fuel Cell is only available in a small number of Los Angeles and Orange County ZIP codes.
Driving the Tucson Fuel Cell is exactly like driving a BEV. A 134-hp AC motor with 221 pound-feet of torque moves the 4150-pound Tucson forcefully from a stop, but acceleration tapers off above 30 mph. The drivetrain and the fuel cell are silent, and the single-speed transmission whisks the Tucson hither and yon without hesitation. But aside from the novelty of the powerplant under the hood, there’s not much that’s exciting or interesting about it.
Hyundai won’t lease Tucson FCVs to just anyone. Prospects are vetted to make sure they live close to a station, their expectations and driving habits work with the car’s 265-mile range, and that they’re comfortable driving a science-fair project.
And while that 265-mile range sounds usable, should you drive 265 miles in any one direction, the only way back is by tow truck. With more hydrogen stations coming, the fuel cell has the potential to compete with BEVs. Right now, though, the fuel cell is an idea bound to LA-LA land.