Fuel cell vehicles – current and future

by Ernie Hernandez on December 6, 2014

Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell

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.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ross Carroll March 8, 2015 at 4:48 pm

I’m loathe to get into a electric battery car versus a hydrogen fuel cell car debate. I’m all for pretty much any technology that moves us on from oil and the` past it’s use by date’ internal combustion engine and on to no emission driving. However there are some issues that concern me about hydrogen fuel cells.
I can see now that car energy providers such as Chevron, BP, Exxon etc are feeling the chill of the electric car as it grows in popularity and influences people to switch to their more efficient technology. How can they compete against cars that can be potentially supplied with free energy?

From what I read, many car journalist’s were baffled by Toyota’s sudden switch from battery cars to hydrogen fuel cells. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but after watching the two documentaries on the `murder’ and `revenge’ of the electric car, it’s not hard to see how it would be in the oil companies interests to compel car makers to switch to making hydrogen fuel cell powered cars as it maintains their current business model. With a Hydrogen fuel cell car – you still have to visit a `service/gas’ station to refill. Compare that with a visit to solar powered and free Tesla Supercharger station visited only on long journeys. Hydrogen compared to battery cars, is inefficient. It’s, to quote Elon Musk “an energy storage mechanism. Not a source of energy.” As he goes on…”Compare the two. Take a solar panel and charge the battery, directly, that’s it. You can drive a car. Compared to split water, take the hydrogen, dump the oxygen, compress the hydrogen to an extremely high pressure or liquify it and put it in a car to run a fuel cell.” He goes on but that’s the gist of his argument.

The article above mentions the lack of infrastructure for hydrogen but I don’t see that as an issue for the oil companies. They’ve made switches in the past when compelled – mandated ethanol in fuel, lead free fuel. Some short term loss of some revenue over a few years is a small price to pay in light of longer term profits from switching to a hydrogen based economy.

Make no mistake, in the very near future we will see cars that plug in at home or the office and, depending on your climate of course, be topped up continually by a car exterior of photovoltaic solar cells. The little solar panel on the rear roof spoiler of the Nissan Leaf is just the beginning of a rolling snowball in my tortured metaphoric opinion. The thought of people driving cars that don’t require energy from them must terrify the oil executives. (Good!)

Having said all of that. I still think there’s a place for hydrogen fuel cells. People who live where the sun doesn’t shine so much will benefit from them. Although I think that solar panels will one day in our life time, reach an efficiency where `any’ light, no matter how dim, will supply some amount of power.
Anyway. Thank you Ernie for a very interesting and thought provoking article.

Reply

Ernie Hernandez March 8, 2015 at 7:33 pm

Ross – Welcome to Living LEAF. Thank you for your comments. I am still studying all of the alternatives and potential advantages and disadvantages of the various alternative fuel sources also. After learning more about the fuel cell option, I must say that I’m leaning more in the BEV (battery electric vehicle) direction – for a number of reasons. Ultimately, this will be a long transition away from conventionally fuelled vehicles. I’m looking forward to learning more myself, and passing along the knowledge gained. Thanks again.

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