Driving on Hydrogen: Quiet, Pleasurable — But Refueling Times, Lack of Power at Speed Criticized

While the majority of the car-buying public have yet to see a hydrogen fuel cell car, let alone drive one, a select group of drivers in California and Canada are already experiencing daily life with a hydrogen fuel cell car courtesy of a lease-only program being offered by South Korean automaker Hyundai.

Two owners share their experiences as lessees of the 2016 Hyundai Tucson FCV SUV

Two owners share their experiences as lessees of the 2016 Hyundai Tucson FCV SUV

Since June last year when the first Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell SUV was delivered to a lease customer in California, a total of 68 vehicles have been leased to customers in North America. Larger than the number of Honda FCX Clarity fuel cell sedans involved in the 2008-2015 hydrogen fuel cell pilot project that ended last month, Hyundai lease program now makes it the largest group of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles being operated under a test program to date.

The overall consensus? The Hyundai Tucson FCV is quiet and refined to drive, with simple, easy-to-understand controls

While we and many other news outlets have all spent some time behind the wheel of a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle, living with a vehicle on a daily basis is entirely different to taking part in a time-limited test drive, so our friends over at GreenCarReports decided to interview some of the drivers who have been leasing the Hyundai Tucson FCV for nearly a year.

The overall consensus? The Hyundai Tucson FCV is quiet and refined to drive, with simple, easy-to-understand controls. Refuelling is described as relatively mundane for the owners that GreenCarReports spoke to, although refuelling times aren’t anywhere near as fast as advertised.

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Moreover, several drivers note that while the Hyundai Tucson FCV is perfect for round-town driving, the compact crossover SUV lacks power at high speed.

For those who are unaware of the limited-production Hyundai Tucson FCV, it is essentially a factory-conversion of Hyundai’s gasoline Tucson, with a specially-modified floor pan built to accommodate the twin hydrogen fuel tanks needed to give it an EPA-approved 265 miles of range per 5.84 kilogram fill of hydrogen. Under the hood, there’s a 100 kilowatt electric motor driving the front wheels, powered by a 100 kilowatt proton-exchange hydrogen fuel cell, while a tiny 0.94 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery stores excess power to enable low-speed maneuvering without turning on the hydrogen fuel cell stack.

Lessees report some problems with reliability of H2 refuelling stations

Lessees report some problems with reliability of H2 refuelling stations

Hotelier and restaurant owner Paul Berkman, one of the Tucson Fuel Cell SUV lessees, lives in Corona del Mar, California. With his house a few miles from not one but three separate filling stations for hydrogen, Berkman has travelled 9,300 miles in the past six months between his various properties, and reports that refuelling with hydrogen is fairly similar to his experiences with gasoline-fuelled vehicles.

We note however that Berkman admits while range anxiety isn’t a problem he finds himself filling his car up when it reads between 3/4 and 1/2 full, since he has encountered several instances during his time with the Tucson FCV where the local hydrogen filling stations have been out of order.

As with electric car rapid charging, Berkman also reports that refuelling takes far longer than advertised. While Hyundai quotes a refuelling time for its Tucson FCV of around three minutes from empty, Berkman says he’s yet to see a refuelling time of less than ten minutes. Given that different hydrogen fuelling stations operate at different pressures — and therefore different gas flow volumes — we should point out that this could be down to the stations he is refilling at rather than the vehicle itself.

Owners report problems with a lack of power at high speed.

Owners report problems with a lack of power at high speed.

Further north in British Columbia are Clayton Crawley and his wife Jennifer Ma, one of around 30 Canadians leasing a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle from Hyundai in B.C. Working a few blocks away from Metro Vancouver’s only high-pressure hydrogen fuelling station, Ma is able to refuel the Crawley-Ma car during the day if she needs to, but notes that the refuelling station — which belongs to the local electric utility company — is only open during business hours (another frustration that many electric car owners will note with some privately-sited, limited-access electric car charging stations).

Both Crawley and Ma say that they feel the hydrogen fuel cell SUV meets their family’s needs perfectly, combining the space and practicality of an SUV with decent range. The only downside they note — other than the aforementioned refuelling station — is the slightly smaller load bay area of the Tucson FCV over its gasoline counterpart, due to the raised cabin floor and large hydrogen tank underneath.

Yet as with any first-generation cutting-edge vehicle being tested with public lease programs, the Hyundai Tucson FCV is not without its flaws. While Berkman and the Crawley-Ma household both praise the low-end torque and sporty around-town acceleration — often to the point that they can all-too-easily exceed posted limits — they and other Tucson FCV lessees have noticed that the vehicle has a distinct lack of performance at highway speeds.

Despite having a different fuel source to electric cars, it seems infrastructure reliability is a problem owners of both hydrogen electric and battery electric vehicles fear

It’s a problem that has become a frequent complaint among Tucson FCV lessees during group surveys, Berkman confirmed. While it’s more of a problem for some drivers than others, Berkman says he has learned what is and isn’t possible with the fuel cell SUV. “I simply got used to the car, and I drive accordingly,” he told GreenCarReports.

For the future, both Berkman and Crawley-Ma say that they are overall happy with their leased hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Moreover, like battery electric car drivers, they’re reluctant to go back to the smelly, noisy world of the internal combustion engine, with both sets of drivers admitting that they have used their time thus far with a zero emission vehicle to reevaluate some of their other choices over energy use.

Like battery electric car drivers, they’re reluctant to go back to the smelly, noisy world of the internal combustion engine.

They’ve even started to look at alternative vehicles for when their leases are up.

Berkman says he’s tested a range of battery electric vehicles, including the Tesla Model S electric sedan, BMW i3, Ford Focus Electric and Chevrolet Volt. But while none of those vehicles were perfect — he said the Tesla Model S had too harsh a regenerative brake, some blind spots and didn’t like the centre display; the BMW i3 felt too much like a kit car; the Focus had too little range; and the Chevrolet Volt was too small inside — he isn’t sure he’d buy a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle right now.

While he wouldn’t buy a hydrogen fuel cell car today however, Berkman is hopeful for the future. “They can squeeze out more range, it’s easy for them to do,” he said. “They’ll figure it out.”

After experiencing the quietness of electric drive, lessees don't want to go back to internal combustion.

After experiencing the quietness of electric drive, lessees don’t want to go back to internal combustion.

For the meantime however, it seems that early hydrogen fuel cell pioneers and electric vehicle pioneers have the same kind of shared experiences that few could have predicted: unreliable infrastructure, an addition to the infectious instant torque of an electric motor, and a list of things for automaker to do in order to make them more appealing to mainstream buyers.

Perhaps there’s a future where battery electric and hydrogen electric cars can be friends after all.

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