This time last week, Hyundai’s first hydrogen fuel cell car — the 2015 Hyundai Tucson FCV — celebrated the one-year anniversary of its consumer launch in the U.S.
To celebrate the milestone, Hyundai released a video detailing the day in the life of one of its Hyundai Fuel Cell owners — the Useltons of southern California — as well as detailing some of its other Hyundai Tucson Fuel Cell drivers in a new social media campaign called The League of Tucson Fuel Cell Drivers: Everyday Superheroes.
Yet as Yonhap News (via) Green Car Reports details, behind the one-year U.S. sales celebrations lies a frustrating truth for the South Korean automaker: since the limited-production hydrogen fuel cell car made its global debut in 2013, just 273 vehicles have been shipped for sales and lease. That includes 76 sales during 2013, 128 units in 2014 and 69 units in the five months to the end of May this year.
That’s far less than the 1,000 car target Hyundai had set itself for the end of this year, although Hyundai is careful to note that its target is for global production, not total global sales.
Based on the gasoline-powered 2015 Hyundai Tucson CUV, the mid-sized crossover is driven by a 100 kilowatt electric motor driving the front wheels which in turn gets its power from a 100 kilowatt proton-exchange hydrogen fuel cell stack and tiny 0.94 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack.
Since the limited-production hydrogen fuel cell car made its global debut in 2013, just 273 vehicles have been shipped for sales and lease.
Range is an EPA-approved 265 miles per 5.84 kilogram fill of its twin hydrogen tanks, but thanks to limited hydrogen refuelling infrastructure, the zero-emission car is only available to buy in select markets around the world, including California, a tiny proportion of British Columbia, Canada, and around a few major European cities — where it is sold as the Hyundai ix35 FCV.
That limited availability — caused in part by the lack of hydrogen fuelling infrastructure for customers — means that many would-be buyers have been put off buying the car. Its high sticker price, originally ₩150 million ($138,000) in its home market without a single government subsidy, hasn’t helped either, resulting in just 29 Hyundai Tucson FCVs being sold in South Korea since launch. As a consequence, Hyundai Motor lowered the price for South Korean customers to ₩85 million ($76,00) in February but that still hasn’t helped sales since plug-in electric vehicles, the Tucson’s nearest zero emission competitors — are available with government subsidy.
The story isn’t any better elsewhere in the world, with just 116 vehicles exported to the U.S. and 117 vehicles sent to Europe. Due to the high price and limited availability, Hyundai North America only leases the cars to customers at a headline price of $499 per month for 36 months, with free servicing and hydrogen fuel. In the UK, Hyundai recently started offering the iX35 FCV for £53,105 after incentives thanks to a generous Europe-wide hydrogen fuel cell initiative which knocks nearly £15,000 off its official £67,995 list price.
Of course, we should at this juncture point out that part of the reason for the poor sales is the complete lack of hydrogen fuelling infrastructure in many would-be key markets around the world. Indeed, while the Tucson FCV would be at home in many of the world’s Megacities, most have no hydrogen fuelling infrastructure, preventing the car from being sold there. It’s a chicken-and-the-egg scenario that many in the plug-in world will recognise from the early days of electric vehicles.
But unlike electric vehicles — which can be recharged from a domestic power socket even if there’s no public refuelling infrastructure — hydrogen fuel cell vehicles simply can’t be refuelled at home. If there’s no public infrastructure, they can’t be driven.
That’s something pro-hydrogen groups are working to resolve, with heavy investment across Asia, Europe, and the U.S. to build and maintain hydrogen fuelling infrastructure. Despite heavy funding however, there are only 11 public hydrogen fuelling stations in South Korea, and 12 refuelling stations in the U.S. — all of which happen to be in southern California.
California has committed to spending at least $100 million to build up a 100-strong network of hydrogen fuelling stations across the state by 2020, with automakers like Honda, Toyota and Hyundai helping with extra funding from their own pockets. In other countries, governments have committed to spending similar amounts on building up their own hydrogen refuelling infrastructure.
Yet unfortunately there’s one big hurdle that all projects need to overcome: cost. Ignoring some of the other criticisms of hydrogen fuel cell vehicles — such as their overall mediocre fuel efficiency and the unfortunate fact that the majority of hydrogen fuel is currently produced from the steam reforming of fossil fuels — building each hydrogen fuelling station is a costly process, several orders of magnitude more expensive than building a single high-powered rapid electric vehicle recharging station.
Until the costs of the infrastructure comes down significantly, Hyundai — and other automakers building hydrogen fuel cell cars for the market — will likely continue to face the same challenges in the marketplace.
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