When it comes to game-changing automotive technologies, we tend to think about the flashiest players in the field: Tesla’s drop-dead-gorgeous and whisper quiet electric sedan and Mercedes’ urea injected ultra-clean and ultra-efficient Blue Tec diesel come to mind. But we don’t tend to talk about Korea’s leading automotive company, Hyundai, though their real-word pioneering work is arguably even more groundbreaking.
This is not a reflection of Hyundai’s expertise – they were making cars well before their venerable Pony became the last car in Canada under $10,000 25 years ago. Hyundai might not have the Silicon Valley flash of the Tesla, but they do know a thing or two about screwing together some wonderful transportation choices, including the flashy-as-anything-you-could-ever-want Equus and the excellent Sonata Hybrid. Enter the Hydrogen Fuel Cell powerd Tucson FCEV SUV.
The idea of a hydrogen fuel cell has been around for years, but too expensive to be practical. Part of the reason is the cost of the platinum plates required, but Hyundai claims that the cost has been reduced by 40% over the last 15 years. A Hydrogen Fuel Cell car is powered by electricity. Cars like the Tesla or Chevrolet’s Volt run off a battery, which stores electricity chemically like the battery in your flashlight. The Fuel Cell in the Tucson FCEV generates electricity through electrolysis – it essentially strips the electron off the Hydrogen atom to generate electricity, and then the remaining proton combines with atmospheric oxygen to create water, which is the only emission related to the process. It’s an elegant-zero emissions solution to a perennial problem of decreasing resources, rising fuel costs and environmental impacts.
Physicists among us will know that an electric motor at a standstill has infinite torque, which falls off quickly once the motor starts to turn. In the real world this translates to serious off-the-line grunt. After about 45 km/h the car drives more or less like any other Tucson, except that it is totally silent, makes no emissions and has just one gear. It is a most practical, drivable car that is a real step forward in the evolution of the species, and it runs on the most common element there is, hydrogen.
And therein lies the rub. Hydrogen might be the most abundant element in the universe, but getting it into your tank is still a little tricky – there are but a handful of fueling stations in North America, and just two in Ontario – one in Ottawa and one at the CNE grounds in Toronto. The majority of North American stations are in the most environmentally progressive states for now, namely California and the North East. Still, the one-million emissions-free kilometers from Tucson FCEV drivers across the continent is a milestone worth noting. In a recent Hyundai sponsored survey, 3 in 4 Canadians expressed an interest in driving such a car, and with good reason. As consumer demand increases, the political and economic will to make hydrogen fuel commonly available can’t be far away. It wasn’t long ago that diesel drivers had to plan their routes based on the availability of fuel, and now clean diesel is available at almost every pump.
The Hydrogen Fuel Cell Tucson is not available in Ontario yet, because of the scarcity of hydrogen fuelling stations, so if you want to see one you’ll have to wait for Toronto’s International Auto Show in February. But until then, the Sonata Hybrid uses a similar electric powertrain, this time linked to a gasoline-powered mill instead of the fuel cell. The car is a technological marvel in its own right; it has loads of torque from the electric motor and is smooth, powerful and loaded with every imaginable mod con. Its sheet metal is aggressively elegant, making it a stylish way to protect our environment. Fuel economy is predictably stellar, and knowing that you’re behind the wheel of a machine that shares part of its powertrain with one of the most advanced road cars in the world has its own caché.
Until the days of easy access to hydrogen fuel are here, we can’t expect to see Hydrogen Fuel Cell cars in every driveway. That day will come, and while you wait you could do a lot worse than plant yourself behind the wheel of the Sonata Hybrid.
Written by Aladin Jarrah