A look at fuel cell vehicles – viable or not?
Electric vehicles (EVs) are not all the same. The Nissan LEAF is a battery electric vehicle (BEV) taking its power purely from an on-board battery. The Chevrolet Volt is an Extended Range Electric Vehicle (EREV) using an onboard battery for motivation until the battery charge reaches a pre-determined low level. Once reached, an on-board gasoline engine starts and this engine acts as a generator supplying power to the battery – not the wheels. This article is about a look into Fuel Cell Vehicles (FCV), a different type of EV that makes its own power on-board. Fuel cell powered vehicles make electricity on-board by converting compressed hydrogen into electricity by way of what’s called a fuel cell stack and then sending that electricity to the electric motor to move the car.
So what makes a FCV more attractive than a BEV? When the hydrogen is depleted, you just add more and you’re back on your way. In a BEV the battery must be recharged, which takes longer. Sounds good, right? The problem is that there is virtually no hydrogen fueling infrastructure in place. There are tens of thousands of EV charging stations located in the U.S. A BEV can also be plugged into any regular 120-volt outlet. It will take awhile to charge, but at least it can be done. Once you’re out of hydrogen, if there is no station available, you’re not going anywhere else.
So exactly how many hydrogen stations are out there? According to the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center (found here) there are currently 13 hydrogen fueling stations in the United States. According to the California Fuel Cell Partnership (found here), 9 of them are in California. In the current infrastructure state, it would be a very narrow sub-set of the population that could use a FCV now.
At the Los Angeles Auto Show, I had the opportunity to get behind the wheel of three such fuel cell vehicles. Two will not see the light of day for several more years, but one is available now – if you live in that very narrow sub-set of the population. Let’s start with that one.
The Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell is available at only three Southern California Hyundai dealerships, and has been since its first delivery in June of this year. One (very nice) perk that Hyundai throws in is unlimited free hydrogen refueling for the life of the lease. Yes – it is only available via a three-year lease currently for $499 per month.
The Fuel Cell version is a virtual clone of its gasoline counterpart. As the picture above shows, it is a fairly sleek rendition of a small modern crossover, although it has a clunky chrome grille where the stylish gasoline version goes. I guess Hyundai wants you to really know that it’s no regular Tucson.
Get behind the wheel, and it’s as quiet as any EV once running. The fuel cell stack has no moving parts, so adds no noise, vibration, or harshness to the equation. The electric motor is also very quiet, and Hyundai did a great job with interior sound dampening. The first note I wrote to myself about the experience says a lot – Amazingly civilized. The 221 lb-ft of torque moves the 4,101 pound vehicle satisfactorily, but it will never be mistaken for a BMW i3 from a stoplight. On the flip side, the payoff is estimated fuel economy of 49 MPGe city, 51 MPGe Highway, and 50 MPGe combined. Not quite up to the standards of a pure battery powered vehicle, but significantly better than what most folks are driving these days. With Hyundai’s inclusion of free hydrogen, it pretty much makes fuel economy irrelevant for early adopters. As with most EVs, there is a single-speed transmission, so the driving experience is extremely smooth. Hyundai says driving range is 265 miles, so let’s expand that to something like 250 to 280 depending on driving style and conditions, and I think that most people would be satisfied with the range. But only if that range includes a refueling station somewhere along the way. Which brings me to the reason that you won’t see these next two for awhile.
Audi presented their A7 Sportback h-tron quattro and Volkswagen brought their Golf SportWagen HyMotion concept. Representatives on hand were quick to make clear the fact that neither vehicle will see production any time soon. Lack of infrastructure was cited as the reason for the delay. So why have these vehicles here at all? So they can say in a few years time, “Remember? We showed these off years ago at the 2014 Los Angeles Auto Show.” The A7 provided brisk, but not blistering, acceleration. Audi does not call a car a quattro unless all four wheels are driven – in this case by two electric motors, one fore, one aft. The VW was fairly slow, but it has to make do with just a single motor driving the front wheels. Both were quiet, but just knowing that they aren’t destined for production anytime soon took much of the excitement out of even driving them. Who knows what they’ll actually be producing when the time comes. Audi claims 62 MPGe, while VW offered no fuel economy estimates.