Fuel-Cell Futures: After driving two of the latest FCEVs we reassess the hydrogen’s prospects
Full disclosure: I remain firmly in the camp that thinks hydrogen is “the fuel of the future—and always will be.” Countless engineer/evangelists nevertheless continue beavering away inside GM,Honda,Hyundai,Toyota, and elsewhere striving to make a nuthin’-but-water-out-the-tailpipe future happen. Recent drives of the first-genToyota Miraiand latestHyundai Nexoplus major pep-talks from the chief hydrogen boosters at Hyundai and Toyota prompted this re-examination of the state of the fuel cell art.
My Beef with Hydrogen
Hydrogen atoms are the Oedipus and Jocasta of molecular marriage. As an H2 couple, they hate each other and want nothing more than to split and hook up with oxygen or carbon or join some other unclaimed valency. Keeping them together and cooped up requires low temperatures, high pressures or both, and as the universe’s smallest molecules, they are Houdini-grade escape artists. This means that when you try to transport them in pipes or tanks, you invariably end up with substantially fewer molecules than you started out with. Hydrogen can’t be considered a “fuel;” it is an energy carrier—it takes energy to isolate it, and you get energy back from it in a fuel cell (orcombustion engine, but the car crowd has given up on that). It can be pumped into a vehicle quicker than you can force a commensurate number of electrons into a chemical battery, but the energy itself is only as clean as the source/method of its production, and in the current landscape, hydrogen’s well-to-wheels cleanliness/efficiency picture isn’t much prettier than that of the national electric grid. And because a fuel cell creates water, operation at very low temperatures can be very tricky.
The Pros’ Rebuttals
As Hyundai’svice president and head of fuel cell group, Sae Hoon Kimis as convinced of hydrogen’s inevitability as I am of its improbability. He cites the 60 million or so tons of hydrogen that are currently being produced and safely distributed globally per year for industrial use in the United States. He’s convinced that hydrogen is the most viable clean energy propulsion mode for vehicles sized between passenger cars and ships or planes (for which biofuels make the most sense) in terms of onboard packaging and refueling logistics. Furthermore, he believes the additional hydrogen needed to fuel a burgeoning transportation sector can in part be supplied by daily surplus wind and solar energy production, which the grid can’t store or use. He also sees this as a viable way for green-energy “have” countries (Australia, Saharan Africa, the Middle East, etc.) to export their surplus green energy to “have not” countries like Japan.
Toyota senior engineer Jackie Birdsallis equally evangelistic in refuting my fuel-cell beefs. By way of assuaging my leakage concern, she notes that Toyota’s modern laser-welded plastic tank linings, extensively wrapped in both carbon fiber and fiberglass (leveraging a historic strength of the Toyoda Loom Works) suffer very little leakage when parked over time. And, she notes, if the tank requires venting, it’s possible to process the hydrogen through the fuel cell to charge the battery or condition the interior, rather than venting it to the atmosphere. Another FCEV benefit over BEVs she’s quick to remind me of: they suffer less efficiency loss in cold weather because the fuel-cell stack can generate sufficient heat to warm the cabin without resistance heating in many cases.
Both of these fuel-cell proselytizers see the challenges facing the technology as a matter of two chickens and two eggs: the hydrogen fueling infrastructure won’t happen until there’s stronger demand for road-use hydrogen. Big fuel-cell trucks could create sufficient hydrogen fuel demand, but low fleet turnover means it’ll take forever for new semi-tractor production bring down the cost of the fuel cell stacks. Each little car uses way less H2 than a truck, but the they sell in large enough volumes to establish economies of scale in fuel-cell stack production.
That’s why both Hyundai and Toyota are working to build both heavy trucks (including Hyundai’s HDC-6 Neptune series of tractors and heavy cargo haulers and Toyota’s Project Portal joint-venture class-8 tractor project with Kenworth) and light vehicles alike. Hyundai was first to mass production withits Tucson/ix35 FCEV crossover(launched in California in June 2014 and testdriven by us shortly thereafter) and has just introduced the vastly improved2019 Hyundai Nexo. Toyota began selling and leasing itsfirst-generation Miraiin the U.S. in August, 2015, and has just unveiled the2021 Miraiat the Tokyo and Los Angeles auto shows. For the record, my colleagues out west have driven theHonda Clarity FCEVas well.
How Do They Drive?
Because the vast majority of America’s 41 hydrogen fueling stations (as of mid-2019, when 25 more were under development) are in California, nobody keeps fuel-cell test cars in Michigan. So my first two drives in any production fuel-cell vehicles happened very recently and just a month apart. The first-gen Mirai drive occurred first—in North Carolina (where there are no stations, so our drives were limited in distance). The Nexo drive was in Michigan, where fuel is available at Hyundai’s HACHI R&D center near Ypsilanti.
I probably don’t need to tell you that they both drive like EVs—remarkably quick off the line, quiet, and smooth. The newer Nexo, not surprisingly, seems more refined. The Hyundai powertrain seemed quieter and also felt slightly quicker. As these are both front-drive cars of similar weight and distribution, their handling was typical of a two-ton front-drive sedan or crossover—which is to say, unremarkable (we are expecting remarkable handling from the rear-drive2021 Toyota Mirai).
The Nexo’s design inside and out is far more appealing than the first-gen Mirai; less so than the second-gen. The materials, stitching, grain, and gloss of everything in the Nexo seems to support the vehicle’s $59,345 base price. By comparison, the old Mirai interior’s wild swoops and peculiar shapes seem to be trying a bit too hard to echo the bizarre exterior without sending “premium” signals (it’s priced $110 above the Nexo).
Hydrogen stations will soon be opening in the CARB-compliance states in the northeast, and California has bold plans to increase the fuel’s availability there as well. The U.S. remains way behind Korea (expecting 86 by year end), Japan (roughly 100), and Germany (around 60), however. In view of this burgeoning global hydrogen infrastructure, Toyota is preparing to produce 30,000 new Mirais per year—well up from the grand total of 6,000 first-gen cars produced to date. Maybe weareat last on the brink of a hydrogen future after all.
|2019 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell||2019 Hyundai Nexo||2019 Toyota Mirai|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan||Front-motor, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV||Front-engine, FWD, 4-pass, 4-door sedan|
|MOTOR||174-hp/221-lb-ft AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric||161-hp/291-lb-ft AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric||151-hp/247-lb-ft AC permanent-magnet synchronous electric|
|TRANSMISSION||1-speed automatic||1-speed automatic||1-speed automatic|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,106 lb (57/43%)*||4,000 lb (mfr)||4,072 lb (F/R dist: 58/42%)*|
|WHEELBASE||108.3 in||109.8 in||109.4 in|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||192.7 x 73.9 x 58.2 in||183.9 x 73.2 x 64.2 in||192.5 x 71.5 x 60.5 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.8 sec*||7.7 sec (MT est)||8.6 sec*|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||67/67/67 mpg-e||59-65/54-58/57-61 mpg-e||NA/NA/67 mpg-e|
|ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY||50/50 kW-hrs/100 miles||52-57/58-62 kW-hrs/100 miles||50 kW-hrs/100 miles (combined)|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.29 lb/mile||0.31-0.34 lb/mile||0.29 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently||Currently||Currently|
|*2017 Honda Clarity Fuel Cell and 2016 Toyota Mirai long-term test car results|